BICOM Analysis: Netanyahu’s struggle for the centre

Key Points

  • Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is stressing a clear distinction between himself and the far-right of his party and playing down the significance of its successes in last week’s party primaries.
  • Netanyahu’s fear that the primaries could make his party seem out of touch with the mainstream sentiment of Israeli society has led him to reassert his authority and express preference for a broad unity coalition over a narrow right-wing government.  He is presenting himself as a superior alternative to the present leadership from within the political centre.
  • The Likud under Netanyahu is articulating a “pragmatic” diplomatic manifesto of reciprocity-based negotiations and “economic peace,” with a view to making realistic progress within the prevailing political conditions.


Over the course of December, each of Israel’s major parties has been holding primaries in which their members vote to determine the position of the various candidates on the party list. Last week’s Likud party primaries marked an event of major significance in the build up to general elections being held in Israel on 10 February 2009.  The rank and file membership of the Likud, which leads in the polls, has chosen some prominent hawks as frontrunners on its list of Knesset candidates.  This brief sheds light on the internal divisions which resurfaced in the Likud last week, providing an insight into the strategy of its party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his bid to return to power.

From renaissance to rift in the Likud

Last week’s Likud primaries, contested by 150 candidates for the support of almost 100,000 party members around Israel, marked an important moment in the party’s political trajectory. The Likud has endured a term in opposition following former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s split to create Kadima.  Likud managed to garner just 12 seats in the March 2006 elections, compared with 38 when it led the governing coalition just three years earlier.

General disillusion with Kadima for most of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s tenure has enabled Benjamin Netanyahu to gradually reposition himself as an alternative.  He has been keen to project himself as a credible and experienced politician. For instance, he has tried to link Israel’s relative insulation from the global financial crisis to economic policies he introduced whilst serving as finance minister between 2003 and 2005.[1]Last week’s primaries were billed as the culmination of a process of party renewal on the eve of the general election, and as a litmus test for Netanyahu’s control of his own party.

Various lists of ‘endorsed candidates’ were circulating throughout the Likud movement by different factions within the party in the weeks leading up to the primaries.  They reflected both personal power struggles – such as that between Netanyahu and his strongest challenger in recent years, Silvan Shalom – and a deeper ideological split, which tore the party apart under Sharon, and which threatens Netanyahu today.  This division pits the mainstream centre-right, which Netanyahu now represents, whose primary focus is on security and defence, against hardliners clinging to the ‘Greater Israel’ vision.  The latter camp extends from the ‘rebels’ who opposed Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal from within the Likud, to extreme right-wing ideologues.

The primaries saw former Jewish residents of Gaza rally around candidates who supported them in opposing the 2005 withdrawal.  This helped ensure that the top three spots after Netanyahu’s (the first place is automatically reserved for the party chair) went to Gideon Saar, Gilad Erdan and Reuven Rivlin. Other hawkish political personalities also secured top-10 seats, including political returnee Benny Begin (son of the late Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister) and former Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon.  Dan Meridor, perceived as a moderate Likudnik and also returning to Knesset politics after a period of absence, came further down the list in 17th place. However, Netanyahu’s backing was insufficient to assist former military and police commanders, Uzi Dayan and Assaf Heifetz, neither of whom advanced past the 38th position on the electoral slate. 

But the news of the results was dominated by far-right ‘Jewish Leadership’ faction head Moshe Feiglin, who holds vehemently anti-Arab views and, earlier this year, was sent a letter from the British Home Office banning him from entering the UK.  He initially secured the 20th spot on the list, before Likud’s governing body demoted him to 36th place following an appeal on a technicality by a close ally of Netanyahu, Ofir Akunis.

Netanyahu versus the extreme right

The deep hostilities between the Netanyahu and Feiglin camps play into the Likud leader’s hand to some extent. By distancing himself from radical sentiments within his own movement, he reinforces the sense that he is the centre-right mainstream alternative to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.

Naturally, rival parties tried to make political capital of the success of the ‘Feiglinite rebels’ by attacking Netanyahu directly.  A Kadima spokesman commented that, “Bibi [Netanyahu] cannot cloud the fact that under his leadership, the Likud has become a right-wing extremist party.  Bibi’s bluff of trying to move to the centre will not succeed.” In response, Netanyahu sought to reassert his authority and his centrist credentials, stating, “I am the Likud’s leader, and the MKs understand that I set the policies.”[3]  Elsewhere, he added, “Feiglin will fade away very quickly.  They can blow it up more and more, but even this lemon doesn’t have much juice left in it.”[4]

A delicate balancing act

There are signs that Netanyahu’s pursuit of the centre ground is more than a bluff.  For instance, he has made clear his preference for a broad national unity government,[5] which would certainly neutralise some of the pressure from the fringe.  There is also speculation in Israeli political circles that Netanyahu would be willing to see a split in the Likud if he wins he election, rather than accommodate dissidence within his party.  Netanyahu, like the Israeli public, knows that, if push comes to shove, he would have the left’s support were a major peace initiative to be on the table.  Ariel Sharon demonstrated this when he co-opted cross-party support for Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, which neutralised the rebels in his own party.

At the same time, by keeping the right-wing ideologues on his electoral list, Netanyahu can still compete with smaller, right-wing parties, whilst pitching himself to the moderate centre.  The slight drain in support for the new ‘Jewish Home’ religious-Zionist party since the Likud primaries is obviously a welcome development from Netanyahu’s perspective.  After losing so many seats in the last election, he wants to win back votes from every corner, and keeping the Likud as a broad church, at least until the election, may help him to do that.

Campaigning for “pragmatic diplomacy”

In the wake of the primaries, Netanyahu used a lunch meeting with EU ambassadors to try to ease concerns in the international community about ramifications for Israeli-Palestinian peace should he become prime minister.

Netanyahu is stressing three interrelated messages at present.  The first is that a Likud government would continue peace talks with the Palestinian Authority but that, because he is against “political stagnation,” he would follow a different path than that pursued by Olmert and Livni.”[6]  The second is his emphasis on economic development proposals, which would bring swift and tangible benefits to Palestinian society.  Third, he advocates the idea of diplomatic progress through regional cooperation, for instance on infrastructure projects involving not only the Palestinians but Egypt, Jordan, and, potentially, the West’s Arab partners in the Persian Gulf.[7]

Netanyahu’s criticism of the Annapolis process from the outset was rooted in his belief, shared by many far beyond the Likud and Israel, that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not a partner that could deliver anything for Israel and an unrealistic timeframe had been created for an unworkable final status deal. This view holds that the political climate is simply not amenable to an agreement on the most intractable issues at present.  This is the basis of Netanyahu’s current campaign for a new style of “pragmatic diplomacy,”[8] intended to differentiate his approach from the one we have witnessed since last November.

He told his audience of foreign ambassadors last week: “I’m not interested in continuing to control the lives of Palestinians,” adding that his plan “will be carried out in parallel, and will reflect positively on negotiations.”[9] He promoted a similar message in an article for the Chicago Tribune which stressed his hopes for peace with the Palestinians.[10]

But nevertheless, his ‘economic peace’ platform has drawn fire from Israeli and Palestinian critics, who see his plan as an excuse for holding on to the West Bank and an intolerable substitute for a political solution.[11] 


Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting not only Tzipi Livni, but other rivals both inside and outside his own party.  In trying to steer himself to electoral victory, he knows that he must appeal to Israeli society beyond the Likud’s grassroots.  Most ordinary Israelis have not abandoned peace, but they do lack faith in the diplomatic process and in their elected representatives.  For that reason, Netanyahu is trying to recast his image as a pragmatic alternative to the present Kadima leadership.  Whilst he does not believe that the Palestinians are presently in a position to reach a peace agreement with Israel, he says he is committed to a negotiations process based on reciprocity.  It will remain to be seen how Netanyahu’s pragmatic messages will be reflected in policy, should he be the one to form Israel’s next coalition.

[1] Maayana Miskin, ‘Netanyahu: I’ll Continue Talks with PA’, Arutz Sheva, 10 December 2008.

[2] Feiglin won’t appeal bump to 36th spot; Amnon Meranda; Ynet News; 11 December, 2008

[3] Gil Hoffman, Shelly Paz and Herb Keinon, ‘Netanyahu to ‘Post’: I’m in charge, I set the policies’, The Jerusalem Post, 11 December 2008.

[4] Yossi Verter and Barak Ravid, ‘Netanyahu to Haaretz, : Likud is behind me; Feiglin will soon disappear’, Haaretz; 11 December 2008.

[5] Gil Hoffman, Shelly Paz and Herb Keinon, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Steve Weizman, ‘Israel’s Netanyahu tells EU he will pursue peace’, The Associated Press, 11 December 2008.

[8] Maayana Miskin, op. cit.

[10] Don’t give up on peace; Benjamin Netanyahu; Chicago Tribune; 14 December 2008

[11] See, for instance, ‘Netanyahu’s “economic peace”‘, Bitterlemons, 24 November 2008.