A split Likud keeps Bibi strong

By Nathan Jeffay, November 26, 2010

What is going on inside Israel's ruling Likud party?

More than half of its representatives in Knesset have come out against its leader, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, over West Bank building. Some 14 of the 27 signed a letter condemning Mr Netanyahu's intention to agree to a new 90-day settlement freeze.

With all the talk of threats posed to Mr Netanyahu's government from the other coalition parties, international observers often overlook the tensions that he faces from inside his own party. These tensions stem from the fact that Likud is a very broad church.

In its Knesset faction are some of the most charismatic spokespersons for the settler cause.

One, Danny Danon, has presented the debate over a freeze in simple terms - Mr Netanyahu remaining loyal to his party's ideology or the incentives offered by America in return for a freeze. "A few more F-16s cannot be a replacement for our long-held ideals, commitments and promises to the citizens of Israel," he said recently.

Another is the Knesset's youngest member, Tzipi Hotovely, who has organised conferences about
"alternatives" to the two-state solution and advocates Israel annexing the entire West Bank. She spent an October Shabbat in Hebron in a show of support to settlers there.

Alongside Mr Danon and Mr Hotovley's signatures in the protest letter to Mr Netanyahu were those of Likudniks who hold key positions in the government. There were two Vice Prime Ministers, Silvan Shalom and Moshe Ya'alon. There was also minister without portfolio Benny Begin, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin.

In contrast to the right-wing, there are Likud politicians like minister Michael Eitan, an enthusiast for the pro-peace Geneva Initiative, and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, whose biography has striking similarities to that of Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.

Like her, Mr Meridor grew up in a well-known family of "revisionists", and then went in to the Knesset with Likud. Like her, he had a political transformation and helped to establish a centrist party - hers was Kadima; his was the now-defunct Israel in the Centre. And like her, he believes that withdrawal from much of the West Bank is essential for Israel to survive as a Jewish state.

This internal division in Likud seems to be a key factor in Mr Netanyahu's continued strength inside the party. It is true that 14 of the 27 MKs came out against him in the letter - but 13 did not, implying that the party is split down the middle. It is no coincidence that Mr Netanyahu himself brought into Likud some of the strongest figures on the right and the left, including Ms Hotovley and Mr Meridor. He has followed the old wisdom - "divide and rule."

Last updated: 3:30pm, May 31 2011