Deputy head of the Likud’s Young Guard, Yoel Nagar, didn’t think he was doing anything wrong when he attended a meeting Sept. 2 in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Nagar, 33, accepted an invitation from Abbas’ office, saying that the Palestinian leader wanted to meet with Israelis. While most participants at the meeting identified with the left and were members of the Peace Now movement, Nagar and another member of the Likud thought that this would be a good chance to hear the other side for themselves.
What happened just a few hours later lies somewhere in the realm between the ridiculous and the disturbing. At the same time, it offers a glimpse into the rapid process of radicalization taking place in the Likud. Nagar received a phone call from David Shain, the chairman of the Young Guard, informing him that because of his meeting with Abbas, he had been removed from his position.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Nagar claimed that Shain explained to him that his meeting with Abbas posed a big problem for him as chairman of the Likud’s Young Guard, and that he had to make some operative move to counter it. If he didn't, Shain said, he would pay a steep political price when competing in the Likud primaries.
Shain made no effort to keep the dismissal of his deputy low-key, and even published a statement saying that the meeting with Abbas crossed a red line. In media interviews, Shain explained that Israelis consider Abbas to be an irrelevant factor, who recently expressed anti-Semitic views and denied the Holocaust. As a result, "one who has a position in the Likud Youth cannot join under any circumstances a meeting with a man like that," Shain added.
Nagar was forced to accept the decision. Still, he said that he had no regrets whatsoever about meeting Abbas, and that he did not break any law. According to Nagar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself met with Abbas in the past and is currently engaged in an indirect dialogue with Hamas in order to reach an arrangement in the Gaza Strip.
What is no less problematic than Nagar’s dismissal, is the fact that not a single Likud minister or Knesset member was willing to condemn it publicly. While some of them did contact Nagar — whom they have known for years — they did so privately, far from the prying eyes of the media, so as not, God forbid, to evoke the wrath of registered Likud members in the West Bank. This refers to large, well-organized groups on the far-right, which have established themselves in the Likud over the past few years. They now wield power in the party’s institutions and have enormous sway over who gets voted onto the list of the party’s candidates for the Knesset. Senior members of the Likud, who are already preparing for the next party primaries (ahead of the 2019 Knesset election), would rather maintain a correct relationship with the powerful settler bloc.
Shain, who lives in the West Bank, is considered to be a key figure in party politics among the settlers, even though he is more moderate than many of them. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Nagar said that as a result of his dismissal, he realizes that he must intensify his activity in the Likud and perhaps even run for a seat on the party’s Knesset list, if only to give voice to the forces of sanity and stop the shift toward the extreme right. “What did I actually do wrong? What’s the problem? The fact that I was open enough to listen to what Abbas has to say?” he asked. “Much to my regret, the extremists are taking over the Likud. I have no intention of leaving [the party]. This is my political home, so I will stay here and fight for it. No one will remove me from the Likud.”
What Nagar is describing is actually the latest and most extreme political development instigated by the settlers after the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. In the wake of the enormous trauma they experienced, watching Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon evacuate settlements, they decided to prevent any further evacuations. The strategy that they chose was mass registration in the Likud in order to influence its policies. Until then, there was no major movement to register settlers with the party, so their registration en masse shifted the balance of power within the party.
In many cases, settlers who register with the Likud do not actually vote for the party. They are simply interested in wielding influence in the Likud’s internal institutions and help decide who will be on its Knesset list. The plan succeeded in moving the party to the farthest extremes of the political right. Following the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016, and his implementation of pro-Israel policies with a right-wing orientation, the self-confidence of the settlers has increased considerably.
“It could not have happened in the Likud 10 years ago — or perhaps even five years ago — that a member of the Likud would be removed from an official position in the party just because he met with a Palestinian leader,” Moti Ohana told Al-Monitor. Ohana is a veteran party activist of standing, who once served as an adviser to Minister Dan Meridor.
Ohana is saddened by the developments he sees in his party as it veers toward extremism, noting that it was once a center-right party loyal to common Israeli values. The settler right is gradually changing the very face of the Likud, and he claims this can be seen in statements by senior party leaders as they make a sharp turn toward the ideological far-right.
Ohana noted that he is already used to seeing the moderate voices in the party dwindling. He was, for example, the only person to vote against the annexation of West Bank settlements in a vote taken by the Likud Central Committee in November 2017 (unbinding resolution). “What happened to the liberal Likud? Since when does it support annexation? After all, annexation means that there will be a separate set of laws in Judea and Samaria [biblical name of the West Bank]. The people [in the Likud] don’t realize that,” he added.
Nevertheless, Ohana also claims that this trend is reversible. It all depends on one man: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He enjoys unprecedented political power in the Likud,” Ohana explained. “He could change the mood and tone down the extremism if he wanted to, but it doesn’t look like that’s the direction he’s headed.”