Israel Pulse

Likud leadership loses touch with base as it panders to ultra-Orthodox, far right

Article Summary
A poll on progressive Judaism indicates that most Likud supporters follow a more moderate line than the radical one espoused by the party leadership in an effort to court the far right.

Culture Minister Miri Regev informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu June 28 that she was quitting her position as chair of a ministerial committee for the holy places. Needing a replacement, Netanyahu raised the issue at the Likud ministers’ weekly meeting on July 1 and was hardly surprised by the thunderous silence as no one volunteered to head the committee in Regev’s stead.

As chair of the committee, it was up to Regev to put together the compromise that would set aside a part of the Western Wall complex for men and women to pray together. Regev explained that her conscience prevented her from doing so. Hard pressed to find a volunteer, Netanyahu first took the position for himself until he was able to convince Minister Yuval Steinitz to accept the task.

The government has been kept busy trying to come up with a Western Wall compromise for the past year. The issue has already led to a serious rift with American Jewry (particularly the Reform and Conservative movements) when Netanyahu succumbed to ultra-Orthodox pressure and canceled his original proposal. In the ensuing saga, the case was sent back to the Supreme Court.

The Likud ministers’ silence was embarrassing, particularly since most of them are either secular or describe themselves as traditional in some way or another. (Ze’ev Elkin is the only Orthodox Likud minister). None of them should have opposed an egalitarian prayer space, but no one was willing to engage in this mission. This silence shows a fascinating phenomenon in the ruling party, with an impact on the entire political system. While most Likud voters are either secular or traditional, with moderate views on issues concerning religion and state, the Likud leadership has been aligning itself with the ultra-Orthodox.

How is it possible that a woman like Regev, who not only served in the Israel Defense Forces but reached the rank of brigadier general, and who lives a secular lifestyle, can suddenly contend that her conscience prevents her from treating women equally?

The answer is that this position serves her best. Like other Likud ministers and Knesset members, Regev is subject to the party’s biggest pressure groups: the far right, the settlers and the nationalist ultra-Orthodox. They make up many thousands of registered Likud members, who vote for the party’s Knesset list in party conventions. In terms of the Western Wall compromise, Regev came under pressure from rabbis and other senior ultra-Orthodox nationalists, which is why she decided to keep her distance from a sensitive and controversial issue. Regev believes that when it matters most, she will get their support.

While most Likud voters hold secular views, Regev and most other Likud ministers don’t seem to take them into consideration. After all, most of them don’t take part in the internal elections to select the Likud party’s Knesset list. This huge gap could be seen in a poll of Likud voters conducted by the polling firm Dialogue on behalf of the Reform movement and released by the Walla website this week.

According to the poll, 71% of Likud voters support the idea that Israel should recognize all streams of Judaism, as opposed to just 29%, who oppose it. The poll also found that most Likud voters, 63%, support a civil marriage option (in Israel, only religious marriages are accepted by law), and 65% said that they support operating public transportation on the Sabbath.

These findings reflect a process underway in the ruling party since 2005, when the Likud was at a breaking point that led to a split in the party a year later, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bolting to establish Kadima. Almost half of the Likud’s senior leadership left the party with him, leaving the more hawkish right-wing base led by Netanyahu.

The disengagement is considered the greatest trauma faced by the settlement enterprise. It forced its opponents to reconsider their strategies so as to prevent some future prime minister from evacuating settlements in the West Bank and resulted in a major surge of voters registering for the Likud party. The idea concocted by the leaders of the settlement movement was simple: They would register en masse with the Likud, which was the largest party on the right, thereby gaining influence over the party without being committed to voting for it in any Knesset elections.

This strategy explains why in the last election there was an enormous gap between the number of people registered as Likud supporters in the settlements and the actual number of people who voted Likud there. Despite their formal registration, most of them preferred to cast their votes for national-religious HaBayit HaYehudi.

Their plan succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. What began at a snail’s pace and was never really dealt with is showing results. This pressure group now has the power to determine politicians’ fates by voting for the party’s Knesset list composition. It succeeded in pushing the party’s leadership to the political far right and to the ultra-Orthodox worldview in matters of religion and state. This power inevitably impacts government policy, particularly given the right-wing ultra-Orthodox leaning of the current coalition.

In the past, Netanyahu believed that the far right was a burden for the Likud. He even tried to distance from them in 2009. Only later did he give up on this idea, perhaps because he realized that they had no impact on his popularity as a candidate for prime minister.

The Likud still remembers Netanyahu’s internal defeat in May 2012. He ran for president of the Likud convention, only to be humiliated when he was forced to concede to Danny Danon, who received the support of the far right. Netanyahu was prime minister at the time, while Danon was just a run-of-the-mill Knesset member. The one advantage that Danon had was that he knew how to connect to the sources of power in the Likud’s institutions. One Likud minister who was with Netanyahu that night described how Netanyahu was shocked to look out from the podium over a sea of black yarmulkes. Nothing like that had ever been seen before in the Likud, which was essentially a secular party. Perhaps that was the moment Netanyahu finally realized that this war was lost.

While there are ministers and Knesset members in the Likud who are appalled by the way their party keeps surrendering to the ultra-Orthodox, they would never dare say so publicly, out of fear of being targeted by this powerful pressure group. Others, like Regev and former Minister Gideon Saar, got closer to tradition in the past few years, and began inundating the social networks with photos of themselves in religious contexts.

While Netanyahu is at the height of his power, voters will be forgiving when the party leadership succumbs to the ultra-Orthodox and the far right. But after the Netanyahu era, the Likud's embracing of extremes could chase voters away. The party’s leadership should consider this problem now even as they grovel before extremist pressure groups.

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Found in: benjamin netanyahu, israeli settlements, kadima, ultra-orthodox, israeli politics, likud

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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