The one thing that sticks out most ahead of the upcoming elections for the various Likud Party institutions, scheduled for Sunday, is the near-complete absence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the entire process. It is as though the tense and passion-filled battle being waged within his party is somehow circumventing him, not touching him. Netanyahu has never been a fan of the party machinations. He has always taken part in it begrudgingly, and always coming in at the last possible minute. After the last minute, if at all possible, is actually best, as far as Netanyahu is concerned.
Deputy Defense Minister and Likud MK Danny Danon's recent victory in the election for the presidency of the Likud Convention played directly into the hands of Netanyahu's opponents, both within Likud and outside the party. Just a few weeks ago, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni complained to Netanyahu and urged him to reel in the "Danonism" that has become rampant in his party (referring to Danon's right-wing views), and now the chief "Danonist" -- Danon himself -- has gained control over the entire party mechanism. If Livni was still chairwoman of the opposition, she would have orchestrated a media circus around this event.
On day after his elections victory, Danon was supposed to spend an entire morning together with Netanyahu at a Golani Brigade exercise in the Golan Heights. But at the last minute, Danon opted to cancel his appearance -- he still had another election to win, for the chairmanship of the Likud Central Committee, and he needed to remain focused. The confusion surrounding the question of whether it is better to be seen as the candidate who will go against Netanyahu or as the candidate who will know how to get along with Netanyahu has struck Danon, as well. It is safe to assume that even now, if asked, he would not know how to answer the question of whether media photos of him whispering with Netanyahu against a backdrop of soldiers and tanks would have served his interests or hurt them.
The Likud DNA limits how far one can go when attacking the party leader. Anyone who crosses that line usually finds that he or she has lost the support of the party activists.
Former Likud minister Michael Eitan, for example, wasn't careful enough when he decided to go up against Netanyahu for the presidency of the Likud Convention, and attacked the party leader at every opportunity. He even vowed to restore the power to the Central Committee -- at the expense of the registered party voters -- by determining the party's Knesset list. In response, the activists showed him the door.
Danon also criticized Netanyahu's choices, but simultaneously made sure to voice his support for the prime minister in every speech. That is how he managed to get voted into one of the top five slots on the party list.
It is no coincidence that Likud and its predecessors have had only four leaders in 65 years, while Labor, for the sake of comparison, has had nine leaders in 45 years and five of its chairs currently serve in official capacities (Shimon Peres, Shelly Yachimovich, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz).
Unlike other party leaders who lost the party's support despite their best efforts (Livni, who was ousted from the leadership of Kadima, and Ehud Barak, who was forced to quit politics altogether, are just two examples from the government's most recent term), Netanyahu is doing it consciously and by choice. Therefore, his path to rehabilitating his standing depends, so it seems, solely on him.
"Ever since I was elected to serve as prime minister," Netanyahu said in a private conversation this week, "I have invested 70 percent of my time to security issues; 20% of the time to economic issues and only 10% to other things."
"The political aspect is important," he added, "and the relationship with the activists is also important." According to the prime minister, it is healthy for the leadership of a democratic party to be in contact with the people in the field, "and I intend to focus my attention on this."
Getting ideas from Putin
One of the key messages that Danon is trying to get out is that a Likud merger with Yisrael Beytenu is a bad idea. He is opposed to this merger just like he opposed the notion of merging with Ehud Barak's Independence Party during the previous term. Netanyahu uses the Barak example as proof that just as the whole thing was nothing but spin last time, so it is this time as well.
"There will not be a merger with Yisrael Beytenu," Netanyahu told certain officials this week. "It is all nonsense." The Likud constitution will not even allow such a merger. For the merger to go through, 2,600 Likud Central Committee members will have to come to vote, and vote in favor. When was the last time so many people came to a Central Committee meeting?
When asked where he draws the line -- when he intends to make trouble for Netanyahu and when he intends to toe the party line -- Danon has a simple answer: The peace process is acceptable to everyone. No one believes that there will ever really be a peace agreement. But if, and when, by some miracle, we do get there, we will try to put on the brakes by deploying the Likud Central Committee.
Netanyahu also has a contingency plan for this possibility: referendum. Any peace agreement, if and when it is signed, will be brought to the people for approval. Therefore, even the Likud Central Committee will ultimately have to succumb to the people's will.
Danon prefers to leave the most controversial topic -- which party institution will determine the party's Knesset list -- to others. Netanyahu wants a so-called "arranging committee" (a mechanism that selects the party list, without elections), while others want to give the power to determine the line-up back to the Central Committee. Still others, namely activists, want to preserve the current situation whereby the registered party voters vote on the makeup of the list. In between there is a string of additional proposals, like establishing a body comprising 10,000 Likud members, including members of the Central Committee and the local Likud chapters, or splitting the vote so that some of the party list is determined by one method and some of the list is determined by a different method.
Netanyahu has yet to make a decision on the matter. When he does, he won't face a hostile Central Committee chairman, most people presume. Furthermore, the most realistic assumption is that Netanyahu himself voted for Danon on Tuesday's election for the presidency of the Likud Convention, and plans to vote for him again on Sunday. When the only alternative is Michael Puah, a close adviser of Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, it is easy to understand why.
Besides running for the chairmanship of the Likud Central Committee, the other interesting race is for the leadership of the Likud Secretariat. For Likud ministers Gideon Sa'ar and Gilad Erdan, this race could be extremely significant. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, the current leader of the secretariat who is expected to retain his position, intends to establish an investigation committee to examine the Likud's disappointing results in the last general election -- when Sa'ar and Erdan headed the campaign headquarters.
Unfortunately for Sa'ar and Erdan, the only candidate who was willing to challenge Katz's candidacy was Likud MK Miri Regev, but as the age-old military adage says: In times of need, pull the trigger, even if you are holding a broom. Incidentally, Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom -- a sworn opponent of Katz's -- has opted to steer clear of this entire affair.
This week, Katz remembered a story he heard several years ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a regular radio show where he expounds on his thoughts from time to time and mainly communicates his political messages to the people. After the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Putin addressed the events in Israel and declared that now, after Israel's colossal failure to wage a war, then-Prime Minister Ehud Omert, then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz and then-Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz would be put on trial.
That's how things work in Putin's world, says Katz. If someone fails, they are automatically brought to trial. I want to assuage the fears of my fellow ministers: No one plans to put you on trial. But lessons must be learned, and an investigation committee will be established.
The elections for the Likud institutions have prompted some interesting characters to dust themselves off and get back in the ring. Former Likud MK Ayoob Kara, for example, is running for a seat on the party's constitution committee. Eli Gabbai is running for the leadership of the party bureau. Gabbai thinks that since he is not an MK, he will have all the time in the world to concentrate on party business. He also intends to hold bureau meetings in the outlying areas of the countries rather than just in the central cities.
Gabbai is running for the position against Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin. Until now, the Likud Bureau has been viewed as an anemic, meaningless organ within the party. But Elkin has far-reaching plans. Among other things, he plans to establish ideology committees that will address various issues and formulate the Likud platform. One can safely assume that under Elkin's leadership, the party platform will not include anything about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The counsel of the National Security Council
In a long and detailed report against National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror that was circulated this week by an unknown body, there was one dissonant detail that put the veracity of the entire report into question: The report claimed that Amidror had leaked information to the press. People who know the man well didn't know whether to laugh or cry. They know full well that this man wouldn't leak his own shoe size even if he was hung by the ears.
There is something strange about the conduct of the National Security Council. Unlike the Foreign Ministry, where diplomacy is the guiding principle so it is no wonder that the ministry experts support any and all Israeli concessions, the National Security Council was supposed to behave differently. The Foreign Ministry never really accepted former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and incessantly undermined him. Incidentally, the ministry is doing the same thing to Elkin.
But the National Security Council was established by Uzi Arad in the 1990s. He upgraded his own status following the Turkel Committee (established to examine the March 2010 flotilla raid in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists aboard a Gaza-bound protest ship) during the government's last term, and it is now run by Amidror. Neither one can be called a leftist. And still, almost all the messages coming out of the National Security Council -- the security body that is closest to the prime minister -- would fit right in on the Meretz party platform. The messages include condemning the construction in the E1 corridor, concluding that the construction in the settlements is harmful, advocating an apology to Turkey over the flotilla raid, and more.
Someone didn't like this conduct, and this person decided to take his or her frustration out on Amidror. The fact is that all the attacks against Amidror came from the Right.
Later, others (or possibly that same person) tried to accuse Amidror of having a conflict of interest in relation to his stake in the natural gas industry. Before being appointed to the position of national security adviser, Amidror served as a consultant to the various gas companies. This time it wasn't just politics -- his ethics were attacked. Amidror could not remain silent. Netanyahu, too, voiced outrage in Amidror's name, despite the impression created by the media that the two had had a falling out.
No David Levy jokes
Likud MK Reuven Rivlin is currently in the midst of a campaign for the presidency. He has been involved in this campaign for several years. Since he is not interested in being the Likud candidate for the position, he probably won't be.
Meanwhile, senior Likud officials continuously point to former minister David Levy as a potential candidate on behalf of the party. Last week I wrote that there may be health issues preventing Levy from throwing his hat in the ring, but in fact, the truth is something else entirely.
Levy's health is not failing, neither is his clarity, and he is even gaining support outside the Likud ranks. Among Levy's supporters are Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman (Levy's daughter Orly is an MK in Lieberman's party) and Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, a close associate of Netanyahu's.
Despite all that, Levy has yet to decide whether he wants to vie for the post. He is working on a book in which he tells the story of the State of Israel from a personal viewpoint. He has a lot to say, but anyone who feels nostalgic for David Levy jokes (in the past, the former foreign minister was a popular butt of a rash of jokes) will not find them in this book. Levy takes this book extremely seriously, and that is also how he is writing it.
But the other candidates are not waiting around. Labor MK Ben-Eliezer recently met with quite a few fellow MKs, and he plans to continue these meetings in efforts to advance his candidacy for the presidency. Former Labor minister Dalia Itzik is also working on her campaign, even though she is no longer serving in the Knesset. She has called several MKs from various parties, apparently to test the waters.
Beit Shemesh comes alive
One of the most interesting municipal elections, which are also coming up, will be in Beit Shemesh. Much to its detriment, the city has recently become a symbol of the battle between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the occasional report of discrimination, exclusion of women or extremists who dominate the city's, and at times even the country's, agenda.
No fewer than seven candidates are vying for the position of mayor in Beit Shemesh. This week, Habayit Hayehudi introduced its candidate -- Aliza Bloch -- into the race. Many people in the national-religious camp were surprised to learn that Habayit Hayehudi has chosen a woman to run in this half-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) town, and many declared that they would withdraw their support. The general feeling is that Bloch was chosen to represent the religious struggle, as a kind of antithesis to the oppression of women that has emerged there.
Another Beit Shemesh woman, Hadassa Margolese, who became a symbol against her will when her 8-year-old daughter Naama was spat on and verbally abused by extremist haredim on her way to school, supports another candidate -- Eli Cohen, vice president of water company Mekorot.
Bloch's media adviser is Amir Dan, and one of her most prominent associates is Raanan Dinur. Both these men worked closely with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It is no wonder that her competitors can't help but wonder whether Olmert may be behind her candidacy.
About a month ago, it emerged that Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett was secretly meeting with Olmert. The content of the meetings was never revealed, until now. The question of what these two men, who hold such opposing worldviews, could possibly discuss, remained a mystery. According to Bloch's rivals, the answer may be found in Beit Shemesh.
Dan, Olmert's and now Bloch's media adviser, rejected the allegations outright. "There is no link between Bloch and Olmert," he insisted. "I have 50 clients and Olmert is only one of them, even if he is the most prominent."
Dan went on to say that "not only Raanan Dinur supports Bloch, but also many other business people. Any attempt to draw a connection between Bloch and Olmert is baseless and wrong."