On the afternoon of July 15, the cease-fire had definitively collapsed and an endless barrage of Hamas rockets rained down across the length and breadth of Israel. The prime minister’s office was inundated with reports of Likud ministers and Knesset members alike publicly denouncing the prime minister’s decision to accept the cease-fire.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon was running from one media outlet to the next, arguing that the prime minister was controlled by the left, that he was abandoning the residents of the south and that his policies were anemic. Danon may have been the most outspoken and uninhibited, but he was hardly the only one to complain. Interior Minister Gideon Saar demanded that Netanyahu convene the entire government to debate the cease-fire, while Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz argued that the cease-fire only benefited Hamas, saying, “The missile threat has not been removed, and the leadership of the organization has not been eliminated.”
There has never been anything like this in the history of the Likud Party. Never before has a party head — and a prime minister, no less — become a punching bag in the middle of a military operation, just for the sake of immediate political points. If anyone wanted further proof that the very DNA of the Likud has changed and that the settlers and other groups from the far right are now setting the tone, they got it in the hours immediately following the Cabinet’s decision to accept the cease-fire.
It is no wonder why the prime minister felt in those hours that he was losing control of the Likud and perhaps even of his coalition. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman contributed as well. Ever since he decided to dismantle the partnership between his Yisrael Beitenu faction and Netanyahu’s Likud at the start of Operation Protective Edge, he has been engaged in a political campaign to present the chairman of the Likud as a cowardly and weak leader.
“We have to go all the way. This cease-fire is nothing more than preparation for the next round. There is no other option than to put the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] in full control of the Gaza Strip,” he declared at a press conference that he convened in the Knesset on the afternoon of July 15.
Netanyahu realized that he had to put an abrupt halt to this spiraling political commotion. After many long months of open and public clashes with his deputy defense minister, he finally decided to fire him. The prime minister’s media consultants announced that Danon had been fired shortly after Netanyahu held a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv. Standing between Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and chief of staff Benny Gantz, the prime minister explained why he decided to adopt the Egyptian proposal. He made it perfectly clear to his detractors in the coalition and the Likud who the responsible adult in the room really was, while directing his remarks mainly at his recalcitrant foreign minister.
“It is a time to make decisions calmly and dispassionately, not rashly and provocatively,” he said. “I am determined to do the right thing. I know that you trust me and all of us in this, and that you are ignoring the background noise.” This was a purely political line, of which Netanyahu weighed each and every word. He used the opportunity to portray Liberman as rash and irresponsible and then, when he was done, he completed this act of deterrence by firing Danon.
Those who consider Netanyahu’s response political spin would hardly be wrong. The prime minister is withstanding political pressure from the right and even acting against the position taken by the majority of his constituents in the Likud. At the same time, however, he wants to divert all the political and public fire targeting him, and Danon was the best candidate to serve as a distraction. Netanyahu and his people knew that the deputy minister, who had been going back and forth between the towns of the south and the television studios inciting the public against him, would become a symbol of the far right’s resolve, but they also believed that the move would have a calming effect on the other senior Likud members.
Netanyahu should be very worried by what is happening within the Likud. The attacks on him have a whiff of rebellion in the midst of a military campaign. Members of his own party are depicting him as no less than a puppet of the left and as a spineless leader with no character who is leading the country toward disaster. This is the ruling party’s worst hour. In their quest for political advantage, party members are treading on one of the Likud’s iron rules: Always respect the prime minister’s dignity in a time of war.
In response to this recent turmoil within the party, a senior member of the Likud told Al-Monitor, “We look more like a neighborhood association than a party that is running a country during a time of war. Knesset members and ministers alike are running from one TV studio to the next like a bunch of provocative pundits who can’t withstand the temptation to win a few more points from the right. We may bring Bibi [Netanyahu] down, but we’ll end up bringing ourselves down, too.” According to him, “Nothing like this has ever happened before in our party’s history. They are shooting right into the armored personnel carrier that is the party, and all they care about is appeasing the settlers. Let no one be surprised if we get just 12 seats again in the next elections.”
This analysis is a good description of the current state of the ruling party. Its senior members are feuding among themselves. The leader who led them to the government has become their punching bag and is being portrayed as a liability. It is a party in which the deputy minister of defense humiliates the prime minister on every available television channel. Danon may yet manage to climb to the uppermost echelons of the Likud — thanks to support from the far right, which has taken over the party — but if the current situation within the party continues, he could find himself as a head of a party that has crashed and burned.
There was another rebellion in the Likud just a decade ago. A group of Knesset members led by Minister Uzi Landau and Deputy Minister Michael Ratzon waged a campaign against the party’s chairman, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The group, which included as many as 10 Knesset members in its glory days, maintained an intimate relationship with the settlers. Its members were convinced that they would be able to secure high positions for themselves on the party’s list of Knesset candidates all because of their uncompromising struggle against Sharon’s policies, which led to the disengagement from Gaza.
It was the rebels’ golden age. They were known in every home across the country because of their frequent media appearances. They were convinced that they were running the Likud, and that they would soon become senior party members. But Sharon eventually got fed up with them. He quit the Likud and founded the Kadima Party, bringing about the almost total annihilation of the Likud as a party. When choosing who would be included in the party’s Knesset list, the Likud’s Central Committee held them responsible for the party’s sad state and punished them accordingly. Almost all of them, including Landau and Ratzon, were dropped from the Knesset list. In the 2006 elections, the Likud crashed, winning only 12 seats.
Netanyahu is hardly in the same situation, and the chances of him splitting the Likud are slim. Still, Danon and Knesset member Miri Regev could find themselves high on the list of a much smaller party, and maybe even out of the Knesset entirely. The explanation is simple. The more they slander Netanyahu, the bigger boost they give to Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett from HaBayit HaYehudi and Liberman of Yisrael Beitenu at the expense of the Likud. Politically, that’s a really foolish thing to do.