Netanyahu merger pushes Likud to the far right
Binyamin Netanyahu’s election deal with far-right Yisrael Beiteinu tracks the public mood, writes MARK WEISSin Jerusalem
THE RESULTS of a survey released in Israel this week showed that more than two-thirds of those polled would oppose suffrage for West Bank Palestinians if Israel annexed the occupied territory.
Seventy-four per cent said they supported a system of segregated roads for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
With the exception of the liberal Ha’aretz newspaper, most Israeli media outlets did not find the results of the survey newsworthy, further proof that the Israeli public has been shifting steadily to the right in recent years.
It is this political reality that provided the backdrop to Thursday night’s dramatic announcement by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu that his ruling Likud party would fight the January election on a joint list with the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu, led by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Such a move would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Lieberman, born in Moldova, emigrated to Israel in 1978 and began his political career as director general of the prime minister’s office during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in 1996.
Despite Lieberman’s hardline stance on the peace process and Israel’s Arab minority, as head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, he was considered the most loyal coalition partner in the outgoing government coalition.
However, on a number of occasions Netanyahu was forced to state publicly that the line adopted by his controversial foreign minister did not represent the policy of the Israeli government.
He distanced himself from Lieberman’s comments in an address to the United Nations in 2010, in which he said a permanent Middle East settlement could take decades and he recommended transferring Israeli Arabs to a future Palestinian state.
In the past the blunt-talking Lieberman has proposed a loyalty oath for Israeli Arabs and even called for the execution of Arab Knesset members who met with Hamas representatives.
He alone determines policy and handpicks the candidates for Yisrael Beiteinu, which receives about half its support from new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Some Likud activists are worried that Thursday’s merger is a betrayal of the Likud’s historic democratic and liberal values, and will alienate the moderate centre as well as traditional Sephardic and religious voters put off by Lieberman’s secularism, popular among the Russian immigrants.
Moderate Likud minister Michael Eitan described the deal as a clearance sale that will “destroy the Likud movement”, saying it threatened Israeli democracy.
Tzipi Livni, a former Likud minister, accused the party of abandoning its values. Opposition head Shaul Mofaz, another former Likud minister, said the merger “turns the Likud, which used to be a liberal national movement, into a nationalistic and racist movement”.
For Lieberman, who has made no secret of his desire to lead the right-wing camp in Israel eventually, the unity deal is an ideal stepping stone. It sets him up nicely as number two, the crown prince waiting for the succession.
Under the unity deal Lieberman will be able to choose any of the top three portfolios – foreign affairs, defence or the treasury – in the next government, assuming Netanyahu wins a third term as prime minister in the January poll. He is likely to stay on as foreign minister.
Announcing the deal, Netanyahu made it clear that his top priority remains to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb.
“Now is the time to project strength vis-a-vis our enemies, and show unity at home. I prefer a strong coalition that relies on one big, united party that is based on true partnership,” he said.
Ha’aretz commentator Aluf Benn wrote that the unity deal essentially sets up a war cabinet that will lead Israel into confrontation with Iran.
“The merger . . . will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defence officials will have a hard time arguing with him,” he wrote.
“From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel airforce to take off for Iran.”