News Analysis: Party Unity Becomes Elusive Goal for Netanyahu at Likud Convention

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped this week’s Likud convention would usher in a new era of unity for the party. But the gathering ended on a sour note, with key factions of the party more divided than ever.

Netanyahu, elected earlier this year as chairman of the party, opened the convention in the ruins of an ancient synagogue on the Golan Heights and said in his welcoming address that he wanted to bring Likud out of the “jungle” of internal strife among rival camps.

The popular Netanyahu, a member of the party’s younger generation who is known by his nickname “Bibi,” said he wanted to give the movement a clear sense of purpose.

After the symbolic opening in the Golan, a gesture meant to underscore Likud’s opposition to a contemplated Israeli withdrawal from the strategic plateau, the 3,000-odd conference delegates moved to Tel Aviv for two days of deliberations at the Yad Eliyahu basketball stadium there.

Netanyahu tried to push through a revised party constitution that would have given the chairman new sweeping powers. But he later authorized his followers to give ground, watering down paragraphs that had been branded by rival camps within the party as autocratic.

Netanyahu’s concessions were generous, considering that the rank-and-file Likudniks had empowered him to take hold of the party and lead it when they voted him in as chairman in late March, in the party’s first primary.

The suave, American-educated Netanyahu won an outright majority over his rivals: David Levy, Ze’ev (Benny) Begin and Moshe Katsav.

Despite Netanyahu’s generous gestures, however, the convention ended late Tuesday night on a sour note.

The breach in the movement, between the victorious Netanyahu camp and that of the resentful and bitter Levy, is wider and deeper now than it was a week ago.

LEVY’S BROTHER STALKS OUT

The most salient impression etched on the public mind by this convention was not Netanyahu’s call for unity, but rather Maxim Levy, mayor of Lod and David Levy’s brother, hurling the charge of “dictator” at the red-faced chairman and then stalking out of the hall, along with a group of his brother’s followers.

Maxim Levy took this step when, as he claimed, it became clear to him that Netanyahu had thrown his weight against Maxim’s election as chairman of the Likud Executive.

Until that moment, it seemed that David Levy’s younger brother would serve as the bridge on which, some day, the resentful and bitter former minister would walk back into the Likud mainstream.

But as it happened, David Levy boycotted all of the convention’s deliberations.

From his office in downtown Tel Aviv, David Levy sent a message through his lieutenants: Party unity would prevail only if Netanyahu offered a public apology for accusing Levy earlier this year of political blackmail.

Levy was referring to “Bibi-gate,” the confused scandal during the election campaign, in which Netanyahu went public with the accusation that he was being blackmailed to withdraw from the primary with threats to release a videotape showing him in a compromising situation with another woman.

Netanyahu reacted by openly confessing he had been having an affair and then implied Levy and his followers were behind the blackmail attempt.

Subsequent police inquiries failed to substantiate Netanyahu’s charges against the former foreign minister.

But by the time the police investigation was over, it was too late: Netanyahu was party leader and Levy, with 25 percent of the vote, a poor runner-up.

“Don’t believe him–he betrayed his own wife,” Levy supporters shouted in the maelstrom that followed his brother’s walkout Tuesday night.

But again, it was too late. Netanyahu had already read out a slate of names for the new Executive, with only a handful of Levy supporters among the 50 members.

With Maxim Levy’s brief dalliance with Netanyahu now shattered, the outlook for Likud unity seems bleak.

This is all the more disappointing to party veterans, since a unified Likud could take advantage of the difficulties currently facing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who is facing both a coalition crisis and a precarious situation in the peace process.

IDEOLOGICAL BATTLES FOUGHT, TOO

In his speeches, Netanyahu has sought to marshall Likud’s strength to lead a concerted campaign against the government’s peace policies, namely a far-reaching autonomy arrangement for Palestinians in the territories and an eventual withdrawal from at least parts of the Golan Heights.

But here, too, personal and ideological clashes blur Likud’s message.

Hard-liner Ariel Sharon demanded at the convention that the party abandon outright its commitment to the Camp David accords and its proposal of Palestinian autonomy.

Sharon also said Arab Knesset members should not have the right to vote in decisions regarding the future of the country.

Another party hard-liner, Knesset member Uzi Landau, drew criticism from his more moderate colleagues when he proposed that Likud declare it will not honor international commitments made by the present government if they include territorial concessions.

From the opposite, more moderate flank of the party, former Police Minister Ronni Milo proposed that Likud endorse a “Gaza first” position, calling for Israel to implement Palestinian autonomy unilaterally and immediately in the Gaza Strip.

Milo was shouted down at the convention’s policy committee and received scant support on the floor. Some party sources said he was floating a trial balloon for Netanyahu himself in raising the “Gaza first” idea.

The convention even failed to give Netanyahu the “nachas” of a parting blessing from his predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir.

In his speech, the former prime minister was full of dire warnings about Rabin’s policy, but pointedly did not even mention Netanyahu, much less wish him luck in his new and plainly uphill job.

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