Netanyahu struggles to hold pragmatists, conservatives together within Likud  

There are growing signs of serious disagreements on the right over the proposed judicial overhaul

In a pro-government rally held late last month in Jerusalem, Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin told an estimated crowd of 600,000 that he was determined to push ahead with polarizing judicial reforms despite ongoing mass public protests and international criticism.

“Over 2 million Israelis voted six months ago in the real referendum: the election. They voted in favor of legal reform,” Levin told those gathered outside the Knesset on April 27. “We are here on this stage with 64 [total coalition] mandates to right an injustice. No more inequality, no one-sided judicial system, no court whose judges are above the Knesset and above the government.”

“We are told that if these reforms pass, there will be a dictatorship. There is no bigger lie than that,” he added. “I will do everything in my power to bring the desired change to the judicial system.”

Levin’s words that night — along with other recent statements, including comments last week accusing the U.S. State Department of supporting protests against the government’s plans, have put him increasingly at odds with the position of his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s longest-serving leader, who for years has headed his political party, Likud, with an iron grip, has been more pragmatic about the reforms, trying to calm fears and insisting Israel’s democratic institutions will not be harmed. Netanyahu has placed emphasis on talks with opposition parties, championed by President Isaac Herzog, to find a compromise on the proposed changes taking place.

The apparent clash between Netanyahu and Levin, 53, who comes from a longtime Likud-supporting family, is unusual and indicative of growing dissent within Likud. The largest party in Israel’s 120-seat parliament with 125,000 paid members, Likud’s popularity has been plummeting in the polls, as has support for Netanyahu. With increasingly vocal grumblings from more moderate quarters of Likud, some are starting to question the future of the country’s “legacy party.”

“I don’t think the party is going to split apart, but there are signs, and they are growing, that there are serious disagreements in the party on a scale that we’ve rarely seen under Netanyahu,” Neri Zilber, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and advisor to the Israel Policy Forum, told Jewish Insider.

“You can really see the rise of at least two camps,” he explained. “People talk about the more pragmatic wing led by Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname], [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant and [Strategic Affairs Minister Ron] Dermer and the more hardline wing led by Levin, [Minister within the Justice Ministry] Dudi Amsalem and lower-profile but vocal Knesset members primarily over the issue of the judicial overhaul.”

Zilber added that there is a third camp rising in the Likud, “unaffiliated to either the pragmatic or hardline wing but which is heavily criticizing both the prime minister and Levin.”

“This includes people like [MK] David Bitan, who are pragmatic and say we need to stop with judicial overhaul because it’s causing damage to the party, and also [Israel’s former Ambassador to the United Nations and MK] Danny Danon, who last week criticized the government’s response to the rocket fire from Gaza,” he added.  

“So, you have at least two, if not three, disparate camps and it’s all coming to the fore right now, due to the objective weakness and declining support for both the party and especially for the prime minister,” said Zilber.

An opinion poll published Sunday by Israel’s top-rated news station, Channel 12, showed tanking support for Netanyahu as prime minister, and for Likud as the ruling party. According to the survey, if an election was held this week, Likud would lose up to eight parliamentary seats – a sharp drop from the 32 seats it currently holds. In contrast, former Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity party would overtake Likud as the largest political faction in the Knesset and the current opposition would have enough seats to form the majority. 

A similar survey published on Friday showed support for Netanyahu’s coalition at an all-time low, with an overwhelming majority of the public disapproving how the government is handling crime, national security and the economy, including the rising cost of living, in favor of the judicial reforms.

Even those who voted for the government appeared to have lost faith, the poll found, with some 60% of those surveyed saying the recent handling of security matters was awful, and 75% saying they were unhappy with the government’s economic policies.

“According to opinion polls, Likud is losing a lot of support from its voters, or at least its more moderate voters – those who are not interested in the judicial changes that the government is proposing,” noted professor Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Inside the party, there are activists and members of Knesset who are quite loud about their support for the reforms, and you have to remember that many of the Likud’s core members are more ideological and more to the right than the party’s general voters,” he explained.

“Netanyahu has to maneuver between these two forces,” noted Rahat. “The more immediate pressure is from within the party and from the members of Knesset, but, in the long run, there are some other people in Likud who are quite worried about the party losing support.”

A little more than a week ago, Bitan, a Likud backbencher once considered fiercely loyal to Netanyahu, lodged harsh criticisms against the prime minister over the judicial overhaul, its legislation, and the overall process. Speaking on Channel 12’s popular “Meet the Press” program, he said that moving ahead with the reforms would be detrimental to the party’s future, and to the future of Israel.

He was also critical of the pro-government rally held a few nights earlier – where Levin spoke of pushing ahead unequivocally with the reforms. “We cannot go on like this, we need to reach a compromise,” Bitan said, adding that the way the plan was rolled out was a “strategic mistake.”

Bitan’s comments followed similar statements, and low-key criticisms, from other moderate Likud lawmakers. In March, former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called to freeze the process, and was conspicuously absent from the plenum in one of the voting sessions. Israeli media has suggested other Likud figures, including Gallant, Danon and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, have quietly pushed for a softening of the legislation and for Netanyahu to seek broader support.

Tal Schneider, political correspondent for The Times of Israel, said that despite the critical voices on both sides, Netanyahu was still very much in control of the party.

“It’s definitely Netanyahu’s party and has been for many years now,” she said, calculating that in total he has served as Likud’s chairman for some 24 years. “He has put his loyalists everywhere – the spokespeople, the entire mechanism of the party, it’s all his people.”

“Sometimes when you see actions from inside the party that contradict Netanyahu or his agenda, it’s mainly about him letting people air their grievances,” Schneider observed. “[Netanyahu] is like, ‘OK, let them talk and let them hold demonstrations’ – I think the rallies that the right-wing organized in favor of the government, were basically the Likud infrastructure letting off steam.”

Of the more moderate voices in the party, Schneider said she believed there was a genuine concern that right-wing secular supporters were watching “in horror at the amount of money that is being given to the Haredi sector, or on the issue of [military] draft [to drop the requirement for ultra-Orthodox men], and the rise in consumer prices.”

“They realize this is why Likud is going down in the opinion polls,” she said. 

As for Levin’s growing prominence among the right-wing flank of the party, Schneider said she doubted he would be able to unseat Netanyahu, or whether that was even his goal.

“I feel like the [party’s] base is in shock,” she continued. “They see the drop in the polls, they see it is continuing and not recovering, but I think the base will eventually follow Netanyahu.”

Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist with Haaretz and author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, told JI that seeming discord in the party and Levin’s increasing prominence were all part of the battle “for the day after Netanyahu.”

“You have the ministers, the members of the party and the voters, and what you are hearing from the top level of representatives is related to the fight for his successor,” he explained. “Amongst the members, Bibi can’t be moved, they love Netanyahu and that’s not going to change. He’ll always win the primaries for leadership.”

Pfeffer said that historically, Likud is a party that has been very loyal to its leader and since its founding more than 100 years ago has had only a handful of chairmen – Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon. Those leaders were only replaced when they died or resigned, he said.

“Netanyahu will only leave the leadership of the Likud when he decides,” continued Pfeffer. “It’s questionable whether he would stand down even if he is indicted [three criminal cases are pending against the prime minister]. Either way, the party members will stand by him because they have a mythical belief in him.”

Asked whether he believed any of the dissenting voices in Likud might break away to join other parties or create their own faction, Pfeffer said it was unlikely. None had enough power to go it alone and the others, despite their recent complaints, remained loyal to the historic party and its core ideology, he said.

“Conceivably some people could but it’s very difficult to survive on the right politically outside of Likud because it’s such a big party,” he said. “Likud is a very strong brand and there’s not much room around them.”

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