JERUSALEM (JTA) — He may be a lightning rod for criticism abroad, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is consolidating power at home.
On Dec. 5, Netanyahu announced that elections for leadership of his Likud Party would be held Jan. 31. The decision came as something of a surprise; primaries in Israel were expected to be held closer to the next general elections, which are set for October 2013.
Leading Likud ministers — except for Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom, who had harbored unrealistic hopes of challenging Netanyahu — strongly supported Netanyahu’s decision, timed to take advantage of the prime minister’s relative popularity.
“A strong prime minister makes for a strong Likud,” said Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar.
In an opinion poll based on 505 respondents published in the Israeli daily Haaretz at the beginning of December, Netanyahu’s approval rate stood at 49 percent. It has bounced back from 32 percent in a July Haaretz poll, when demonstrations were raging against socioeconomic inequalities and the cost of living.
According to the December poll, if parliamentary elections had been held in November, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the second-largest coalition party, each would have gained two Knesset seats. The poll predicted that leading opposition parties Kadima and Labor would not be able to seriously challenge the right’s dominance.
Indeed, Netanyahu and his coalition — buoyed by a solid base of haredi Orthodox Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, religious Zionists and secular right-wingers — enjoy impressive political stability.
However, for all his strength at home, Netanyahu has had rocky relations with some of Israel’s allies, including the United States.
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made separate remarks that were taken by some as implicit rebukes of the current Israeli government, though others have suggested that their remarks were not intended in that spirit.
In an address to the Saban Forum in Washington, Panetta suggested that Israel needed to “mend fences” with its neighbors. And in response to a question about what Israel should do to advance peace, Panetta said “just get to the damn table.”
Responding to a question in an off-the-record session at the same conference, Clinton reportedly expressed some concerns over the state of Israeli democracy. She was said to have criticized gender-segregated buses serving the haredi Orthodox community and a proposed Knesset measure aimed at constricting left-wing NGOs.
After the comments by Clinton and Panetta were made public, influential Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit accused Netanyahu of sacrificing the support of the democratic West — which he said over the years has supported Israel politically, militarily and economically — to maintain his base of “nationalists,” “national-religious” and “haredim.”
Shavit and other centrists would have preferred to see Netanyahu form a coalition with Kadima and Labor following the 2009 elections. If he had, some argue, Israel may have made more headway in peace talks with the Palestinians and been on better terms with the Obama administration and with Western European countries.
But if Netanyahu had formed such a coalition, it is not at all clear that his position within the Likud would have been as strong as it is today. Nor is it clear that Netanyahu would have enjoyed the sort of political stability he has with his current partners.
The apparent tensions between Jerusalem and Washington have fueled speculation that Netanyahu’s call for an early leadership vote was connected in part to the U.S. presidential elections in November. Some commentators have speculated that Netanyahu fears a victory by President Obama.
According to the theory, Netanyahu is afraid that Obama in a second term will renew pressure on Israel to freeze building in the West Bank, dismantle outposts or take other proactive steps to jump-start negotiations — steps that, if implemented, could endanger the stability of Netanyahu’s coalition and turn hawkish Likud Knesset members against the prime minister.
Some have suggested that a second Obama administration may even attempt to send out signals of dissatisfaction with the Netanyahu government ahead of the 2013 Israeli elections in an attempt to influence the outcome.
There are precedents: Bill Clinton, fed up with Netanyahu’s settlement policies, used the tactic to help Ehud Barak defeat Netanyahu in the 1999 Israeli elections, and George H.W. Bush, angered by Yitzhak Shamir’s intransigence on peace talks with the Palestinians, did the same in 1992 to help Yitzhak Rabin to victory, according to Zalman Shoval, who was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. in Likud-led governments during both periods and now heads the prime minister’s advisory forum on U.S.-Israel relations.
Holding the Likud leadership race in January would enable Netanyahu to advance the general elections to as early as July 2012 if he sees Obama doing well in the polls, though the scenario seems far-fetched. Also, moving up the vote would depend on Netanyahu’s ability to muster a majority in the Knesset for early elections — no easy task.
Nevertheless, such speculation reflects the perception in Israel that relations between the Israeli government and the Obama administration have deteriorated.
Still Shoval, who recently returned to Israel from a trip to the U.S., where he met with senior White House officials, said the recent comments by Panetta and Clinton should be taken “with a grain of salt.” Shoval said he was told that the comments were made “off the cuff.”
“I’ve never felt such strong support for Israel in Washington,” he added.
Shoval also dismissed the idea put forward by Shavit that the Netanyahu government is moving away from the values of Western democracies.
“Unlike in the U.S., we have no death penalty for criminals, openly gay soldiers have long enjoyed full rights in the IDF, we have no problem with abortions and there is no political intervention in the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court,” Shoval said.
Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, also dismissed claims that Israel was drifting away from the West.
“Israel has its own form of democracy, a Jewish democracy,” Rotem said. “And this Jewish democracy is no different from Western democracies — it defends itself when it is attacked.”
Though he is widely seen as hawkish, Netanyahu has taken steps to position Likud as a more centrist party. He called the snap leadership race to coincide with a previously planned Likud Central Committee election. Doing so is expected to increase the chances of a large turnout from about 100,000 eligible party members, since the last Central Committee election was last held a decade ago and many will not want to miss the chance to choose a new committee.
A large turnout not only will give more legitimacy to Netanyahu’s victory, it also might help him to further sideline far-right party activist Moshe Feiglin, Netanyahu’s only competition, who garnered 23 percent of the vote in the last primaries, held in 2007, thanks in part to the mobilization of a highly motivated minority against a more complacent pro-Netanyahu camp.
Netanyahu also has taken steps to partially roll back affirmative action measures that have encouraged West Bank settlers to participate in the Likud’s Central Committee by giving them proportionally more representatives relative to their size.
While solid, the stability of the current Israeli government is not unshakable. A possible corruption indictment against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, upon whom Yisrael Beiteinu’s other largely unknown Knesset members rely for political currency, could devastate the party.
The Sephardic haredi Orthodox party Shas, another key coalition partner, would be vulnerable in the event of a number of possible developments, including the sudden death of its spiritual leader, nonagenarian Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, or a challenge from its charismatic former political leader Aryeh Deri.
These potential dangers to his coalition’s stability, which might lead to early elections, may have provided additional impetus for Netanyahu to consolidate his power now.