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News Analysis: Merger Deal Rankles Likud on Eve of Party’s Primary

March 18, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is facing unrest within his party after he decided to merge two smaller parties into the Likud’s slate in the upcoming national election.

That decision will leave far fewer Knesset seats available for Likud loyalists when Israeli voters go to the polls May 29 to elect the next Knesset and, in a separate ballot, prime minister.

Knesset seats are based on the proportion of the national vote a party wins. Under this system, candidates higher up on a party list are more likely to secure a seat than those lower on the list. The order of candidates on the list is determined in party primaries.

The agreement Netanyahu signed last week with the right-wing Tsomet Party, led by Rafael Eitan, and with Likud renegade David Levy’s Gesher Party called for the two parties to run on a joint list with Likud.

Levy and Eitan agreed to forego their own candidacies for prime minister in return for securing the second and third spots, respectively, on the joint list behind Netanyahu.

The agreement also specified that Tsomet and Gesher candidates would have seven places each in the first 42 spots on the joint Knesset list.

With top spots on the list reserved for Levy and Eitan – as well as for Ariel Sharon, the Likud Knesset member who put the deal together – popular and more moderate Likud figures such as Knesset members Dan Meridor and Ze’ev “Benny” Begin may be pushed aside – to the dismay of many in the party.

While the merger agreement was scheduled to be endorsed by the Likud Central Committee this week, tensions within Likud are expected to come to the surface after the party’s primaries, to be held early next week.

At that time, the Likud leader can expect trouble, say political pundits – especially when a significant number of party loyalists find that because of the deal with Tsomet and Gesher, they have placed too far down on the list to be assured seats in the next Knesset.

Current opinion polls show the combined Likud-Tsomet-Gesher Knesset list winning 42 seats.

The bitter irony for Likud loyalists is compounded in such cases as that of Reuven Rivlin, a former Knesset member and longtime Likud activist from Jerusalem who decided not to break away from Likud when his political mentor, Levy, formed Gesher.

Had he gone with Levy, he would have been virtually assured a Knesset seat among Levy’s guaranteed seven on the combined list.

Now, he is unlikely to secure a slot amid the jostling for the 27 available “safe” seats for Likud candidates, not including the one already reserved for Netanyahu.

The Likud leader’s primary purpose in striking the deals with Tsomet and Gesher was to avert a runoff battle for the prime ministership.

A runoff vote is necessary when no candidate succeeds in winning more than 50 percent of the vote. That would have been highly likely had Eitan and Levy run against Netanyahu and the Labor incumbent, Shimon Peres.

Now, with Netanyahu and Peres expected to be the only two candidates for the premiership, the issue will be settled May 29.

Netanyahu’s strategists are hopeful that averting a runoff will benefit the candidate, especially among fervently Orthodox voters.

They will already be at the polling stations to vote for namely the religious parties in the Knesset race, and the strategists think they can be relied on to choose Netanyahu for prime minister.

But it would be hard to get them to come out and vote a second time, in a runoff two weeks later, for the prime ministership, the strategists say.

Given the close race between Peres and Netanyahu predicted in the polls, the Likud leader’s strategy of wooing Tsomet and Gesher appears sound.

But there are criticisms that the deal could boomerang against Netanyahu’s own chances by deterring middle-of-the-road voters.

The swing vote of that group, rather than the die-hard Likud and Labor backers, will determine the election outcome.

The prospect of a Likud government with Eitan as minister of defense and Sharon as minister of internal security is not universally appealing.

The two men’s role in the Lebanon war of the early 1980s – Sharon was defense minister at the time, Eitan, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff – remains highly controversial.

Their appointment to top slots, moreover, would mean that second – and third- generation Likud loyalists such as Meridor and Begin would be less prominent and influential in a Likud administration.

To counter this criticism, aides to Netanyahu suggested last weekend that the deal with Tsomet and Gesher does not necessarily secure top Cabinet posts for Eitan, Sharon and Levy.

The three men themselves are maintaining an ominous silence, aware of the swirling undercurrents within the party and of its leader’s delicate position as a result of his deal with them.

Ominous, too, is the silence of some of the Likud loyalists.

Meridor and Begin pointedly declined to participate in the Likud-Tsomet-Gesher signing ceremony at the Knesset last week.

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