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Is Netanyahu Losing Control of Likud?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be presiding over the Likud party's decline, writes Mazal Mualem.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem April 28, 2013. REUTERS/Sebastian Scheiner/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXZ2HB

Three months have passed since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his third term as prime minister, and this week [May 1] he discovered a simple fact: He doesn't control his own party. It only took a few dozen Likud caucus members to make him face the truth. They succeeded, and fairly easily, in preventing him from appointing the man he wanted, his associate Yossi Shelly, as the director-general of the Likud movement.

Netanyahu's embarrassment and capitulation were barely reported in the news media, which misguidedly dealt with this event as an internal partisan dispute of little importance. Instead, it covered extensively the sexual harassment affair of journalist Emmanuel Rosen and the zigzagging of Finance Minister Yair Lapid on the way to having the state budget approved.

In fact, the scuttling of the Shelly appointment is nothing short of a warning sign for Netanyahu, who is losing ground on his own political turf. It is an ill-boding sign when a prime minister, who has just started his term, is unable to convince a few dozen party caucus members to toe the line.

Those who have been watching closely the power constellation in the Likud party in recent years, and specifically after the recent elections [Jan. 22] might be under the impression that the party members are inclined to blame Netanyahu for the poor electoral results following the merger with the Israel Beiteinu slate. The bon ton in the Likud is that Netanyahu sold out to former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's Russian party only to keep his reign. By his actions — they allege — he caused a scandalous loss of parliament seats. There's great anger at Netanyahu, and it's trickling down to all levels of the Likud party. Ministers and Knesset members working the party base are familiar with the voices and the disrespectful comments that the prime minister elicits from the activists. This is a combination of anger and a general understanding that this is Netanyahu's last term as prime minister. And that instantly makes him a "lame duck," at least within his party, and also a weak chairman.

The recent commotion regarding Yossi Shelly's appointment broke out due to the unsavory way in which the prime minister chose to bid farewell to the predecessor, Gadi Arieli, the director-general of the Likud party for the last seven years. Netanyahu furtively orchestrated the impeachment of the highly regarded director-general who he had mobilized into the Likud ranks while still serving as chairman of the opposition. A personable, loyal and straight-as-an-arrow businessman, who made sure to keep the finances of the Likud coffers in order throughout those turbulent years, Arieli was summoned on Monday night [April 29] to Netanyahu's office where the prime minister simply told him, "We've run our course," and sent him on his way. 

Behind the scenes, Netanyahu had already convened the Likud secretariat forum for an extraordinary meeting to approve the appointment of Yossi Shelly as the Likud's director-general.

Shelly is the exact opposite of Arieli in terms of moral conduct, and these are not just rumors. In the past, when Shelly vied for the position of director-general of Israel's Postal Service, he submitted three false affidavits to the appointment committee in which he claimed that he had no association with the Likud, even though he was a party apparatchik. In another case, he was accused of an egregious act of fraud. Eighteen months ago, he signed a plea bargain that prevents him from serving in public office for three years. Although the ban is still in effect, the opinion of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein was that the plea bargain would not legally prevent Shelly from being appointed Likud director-general because the position is not a public office.

The question about Netanyahu's treatment of Arieli, who on more than one occasion took the bullet for Netanyahu, is replaced with an equally disturbing thought about the identity of his replacement.

As noted, more than anything else, this is indicative of Netanyahu's standing at the start of his third term. The prime minister was sure that he was going to take some flak but that the appointment would go through. Yet, he was wrong. Dead wrong. When he realized his mistake, he folded and indefinitely put off the meeting which was to approve the candidate. His excuse was that concurrent with the caucus meeting a memorial ceremony was being held for David Raziel, the first commander of the pre-state Irgun underground movement, which many members wanted to attend. All that can be said about this is: "Give us a break."

The bottom line is that Netanyahu took a beating. At the moment, it remains unclear whether he will eventually be able to appoint Shelly, but that's not the point. The point is that if Netanyahu fails in such a simple move, how will he fare with regard to more substantial issues? For example, the merger between Likud and Israel Beiteinu will soon be brought up for ratification. There are already mounting voices within the Likud caucus not to ratify the agreement, which they regard as nothing less than a "disaster for the Likud."

So if Netanyahu seeks a fourth term, he will have to roll up his sleeves and work hard to rebuild his standing in the Likud, which has long not been his political backbone.

Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career on the Bamachane army weekly newspaper. She later worked for the second-leading Israeli daily Maariv. In 1998, she joined Haaretz and later became chief political analyst of the paper. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as their chief political analyst.

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