In recent years, they have proved contentious forums in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has known successes and failures in seeking to marginalize hawkish members led by Moshe Feiglin. Further back, and most memorably, in February 1990, someone mysteriously turned off the power when then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was in mid-speech, several times, and the evening deteriorated into a Shamir-Ariel Sharon shouting match.
Monday’s get-together, at which members overwhelmingly approved an alliance with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party for a joint Knesset list, was extremely short and, for Netanyahu, extremely sweet.
Opponents of “Likud Beytenu” — and there were a bunch of them, party greenhorns and veterans alike — were swept aside as hundreds of their fellow party members waved aloft the yellow pieces of paper they had been given when asked if they approved the deal, amid much frenetic shouting of “Bibi, Bibi.”
At first, it proved difficult to get the masses who had gathered at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds to take their seats. But then, surprisingly early — no waiting for the 8 p.m TV news — Netanyahu entered the hall, to be greeted by wild cheering. No face-off against the Feiglin-ists tonight.
He was briefly introduced by the departing Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, a Central Committee favorite who was chairing the event in one of his last leadership acts before he quits politics for a while. And then, without further ado, the prime minister addressed the crowd.
There was no long policy speech. Just a few slogan-filled sentences, highlighting the need for “a strong Likud” in order to ensure “a strong Israel.”
“We need unity and responsibility,” Netanyahu said to raucous applause — unity, but not a full merger, he made clear, with Liberman’s largely Russian immigrant-supported party.
It all seemed so easy, even though it hadn’t looked that easy in the first couple of days after Thursday’s press conference, where Netanyahu and Liberman announced the shock deal. Many party veterans were unhappy about the political (and personal) ramifications this alliance would have. Orthodox Likudniks in particular were shocked about the prospect of a union with the “pork-eating Russians.” But the first opinion polls have not been too bad, and Netanyahu evidently knew a few well-chosen sentences would suffice to win the day.
“The Likud will remain an independent party that will continue our path in preserving Israel’s security and the Jewish heritage,” he stressed, underlining a rather different tone from Liberman’s initial talk late last week of a “big” and “serious” joint party. “The unity agreement will allow us to continue leading vigorously when we can rely on the massive bloc of a unified national camp.”
The Likud chairman wasted no time on the details of what exactly he and Liberman had agreed upon, or on questions such as how the “Biberman” partnership, if elected, would deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (Liberman considers him a “political terrorist” with whom Israel could never make peace, while Netanyahu wants to resume negations with him.) And what will become of plans for a universal draft law? (Yisrael Beytenu wants the Haredim to enlist, while Netanyahu would like to go gently on his potential ultra-Orthodox coalition allies.)
Questions for another night. A night after an anticipated January 22 election victory.
Instead, Netanyahu said simply that the alliance was necessary so that he could remain prime minister and continue to fulfill all the promises he has made and will continue to make during the upcoming campaign — “preserve the security of Israel’s citizens, preserve the workplace of Israeli citizens and lower the cost of living, and first and foremost bring down housing prices.”
The speech over, and efforts to force a secret ballot having failed, Kahlon called the vote, by show of hands clutching yellow tickets. It was a no contest. The national anthem played and the whole affair was over.
Veteran Likud MK and Minister of Improvement of Government Services Michael Eitan, the only prominent overt critic of the alliance, had tried desperately to get a secret ballot, thinking that unhappy committee members might privately defy the party leader. Walking around the teeming hall armed with a clipboard and pen, he and his aides sought in vain for enough signatories.
There were some takers, but there would be no revolt tonight.
“We need to maintain some level of democracy in the party,” said Yisrael Shuldiener, a skullcap-clad party member opposed to the deal, who was about the 250th signatory of the 400 Eitan needed. Shuldiener, 33, said the alliance “will hurt the Likud and our MKs.” Liberman’s wordview was “totally different from the Likud’s core values,” such as an appreciation for Jewish tradition.
Speaking to The Times of Israel after the event, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, presumed to oppose the alliance, seemed disappointed but was circumspect. “We will see what happens now — we will make the best of it,” he said. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Shimon Sheetrit, the head of Likud’s Dimona branch, by contrast, said he was at Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem on Sunday, where the prime minister briefed him and other Likud leaders on the details of the deal. “I told Netanyahu that I see the media is panicking, and whenever the press goes into such a frenzy over something, it’s a sign that you did exactly the right thing.”
‘It was a mistake, but I’m not sure it would be good to change the plan now. The damage is done’
In fact, Sheetrit favors a complete merger of the two parties. “We grew up on Yvette, he’s one of ours,” he said, using Liberman’s nickname. “We already saw in the polls today, we’re leading with a huge gap over the second-place party.”
Central Committee member Benjamin Ungar said running on a united list with Yisrael Beytenu was a bad idea, but that he was backing the proposal anyway. “It was a mistake, but I’m not sure it would be good to change the plan now. The damage is done,” he said.
Ungar was far more exercised by the fact that he was denied the right to address the gathering. A former pre-state Irgun underground fighter, he wanted to advance a demand for the Likud to save four spots on its Knesset list for veterans like himself.
As is customary at Likud meetings, political hopefuls and their helpers handed out flyers, business cards and CDs outside the Fairgrounds, recommending themselves for the Knesset list. They didn’t have much time to garner support.
Unlike some recent central committee meetings, the crowd seemed to accurately reflect the party’s broad base. Lately, these gatherings have been dominated by skullcap-wearing activists from the Likud’s right flank, but on Monday activists of all stripes were present: old and young, ultra-Orthodox, settlers and secular Jews, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Russians and Ethiopians, and several Druze in traditional garb including a Knesset candidate named Moustafa Jihad.
And all of them, or almost all, were content to throw in their lot with the new Netanyahu-Liberman partnership.