- Likud’s Central Committee has approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to hold early leadership elections in the Likud party on 31 January.
- Netanyahu hopes to solidify his position within the Likud and in relation to rival parties in Israel.
- Netanyahu has put himself in a better position to initiate a general election should he choose to do so, and to face the voters should an election be forced upon him.
On 15 December, Likud’s Central Committee approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to hold early leadership elections in the Likud on January 31. Netanyahu surprised many of his own Likud party Knesset members by bringing forward a leadership election in the party. Normally a leadership contest is held in the run up to a general election, but the next general election is not due to take place until October 2013.
Netanyahu has brought forward the poll to coincide with a vote for the party’s influential Central Committee. More than one hundred thousand Likud members will be eligible to vote. Though Netanyahu claims the decision is to save the party money, it is widely interpreted as a calculated move to strengthen Netanyahu’s position, and possibly as a preparatory step towards calling an early election.
Why has Netanyahu called an early leadership election in the Likud?
Bringing the leadership vote forward serves Netanyahu’s interests in a number of ways. Firstly, he is able to capitalise on a position of relative strength. He enjoyed a bump in popularity as a result of the Gilad Shalit deal, and in recent polls Likud shows a significant lead over Kadima, Labour and Yisrael Beitenu, its principle electoral rivals.
Internal party considerations have also influenced the decision to hold an early leadership election. The surprise decision leaves Netanyahu’s rivals within Likud no time to organize a serious challenge. Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, Netanyahu’s most likely challenger, knows his chances of victory at this point are remote, and is unlikely to stand. Moshe Feiglin, leader of the rightist ‘Jewish Leadership’ faction of the party will stand, but is unlikely to get more than a quarter of the votes. Combining the leadership vote with the Central Committee vote will help ensure a good turnout, and a convincing majority for Netanyahu.
Gaining re-election as party leader will help Netanyahu maintain his strong position with the Likud Central Committee, the 2500 member elected body which governs the party. The committee has considerable influence over the party’s internal workings and the makeup of the candidate list for the next general election. It can also act as a constraining factor on the decision making of the party leader.
Current party voting rules give an advantage to members voting in West Bank settlements, where Netanyahu enjoys less support, compared to members in the major towns and cities. Whilst bringing forward the date of the leadership vote, Netanyahu also amended the voting system to change this, and to try to ensure that he retains the support of the party’s central institutions.
As well as wanting to maintain the support of the institutions of his party, it is important electorally for Netanyahu to avoid the party being pulled too far to the right. Likud’s voters are not homogenous. On the one hand, there are centre ground voters who are pragmatic in their approach to the dominant ‘peace and security’ issues, if suspicious of the prospects of real progress on the Palestinian issue. Other Likud voters are attracted by the party’s nationalist ideology, and its traditional support for West Bank settlements. Likud’s electoral success depends on being able to appeal to both constituencies and prevent votes floating away to rivals both in the centre and on the right.
As well as improving his position within his own party, being re-elected as Likud leader will strengthen Netanyahu’s position against the leaders of the other major parties. On the face of it, the governing coalition which Netanyahu leads is stable. The stalled diplomatic process with the Palestinians and the subsiding of the summer’s social protest movement have reduced sources of tension for now. However, the government rests on a relatively small parliamentary majority and could still be brought down by one of Likud’s major coalition partners, either the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu party or religious Shas party, if they decide it is in their electoral interests.
Netanyahu will be particularly wary of the competition for votes on the right posed by foreign minister and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman. Once he has a renewed mandate from his party, the prime minister will be better prepared to face elections should his coalition fall apart, or to bring about an election himself if he decides the time is ripe.
Is this a harbinger of an early general election?
Views vary among Israeli political analysts as to whether an early general election would be in Netanyahu’s interests. Some argue that Netanyahu’s lead over his rivals is probably at its peak, so it would be in his interests to hold an election soon. He would be catching opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima party, at a vulnerable moment. Kadima, currently the largest party in the Knesset, has seen its polling numbers drop recently, and Livni is facing challenges to her leadership.
Getting re-elected in the next year would also strengthen Netanyahu in his international dealings, in particular with President Obama. The US President may take a more determined approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if re-elected in 2012, and there may also be differences between Jerusalem and Washington on how to deal with Iran. On both issues, a fresh mandate and a new government coalition would be political assets for Netanyahu both at home and abroad.
Others, on the other hand, point out that it would be an oddity for a Prime Minster with an apparently stable coalition to bring about elections when they are not due until October 2013. Israeli Prime Ministers who have initiated early elections in the past have usually been punished by the electorate with a defeat at the ballot box.
There is no conclusive evidence that the Israeli prime minister has fixed on a timetable for general elections. However, Netanyahu seeks to maintain as much control as possible over the political direction of his own party and the date of any future election. By seeking early re-election as leader of Likud, Netanyahu has put himself in a better position to initiate general elections should he choose to, and to face the voters should an election be forced upon him.