Rage in the Ranks

DISSENT in Israel's ruling Likud came to a head in early November, when a heated annual convention saw cabinet ministers pitted against central committee members over the issue of party primaries.

The target of the growing mutiny is prime minister and party chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, whom several ministers and senior Knesset members are reportedly conspiring to topple.

The Likud central committee, supportive of Netanyahu's desire to drop the primary system, clashed with the ministers, who opposed the move. The central committee won the day in voting.

According to media reports, those deeply unhappy with Netanyahu's leadership include internal opponents on his left and right. They include Dan Meridor (who resigned as Finance Minister earlier this year after differences with the premier), Ze'ev Begin (who resigned as Science Minister to protest Israel's handover of most of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority), Communications Minister Limor Livnat, Science Minister Michael Eitan, and Tel Aviv mayor Roni Milo.

The rebels could adopt one of several strategies. Dissident Likud members believe they could get a majority of the party's 22 Knesset members to resign. Under Israeli law, a breakaway group comprising a majority (at least 12 in this case), may retain the party's name and funds. Netanyahu and remaining members would no longer be able to use the Likud's name and resources.

Another method being discussed is for a core of seven or eight Likud Knesset members, plus one or two from Foreign Minister David Levy's Gesher faction, to support an opposition no confidence motion, causing the government to fall and forcing early elections. A new party would have to be formed, as the Likud malcontents could not compete for positions within the Likud in the future.

Speculation is that such a party could be led by Meridor, Milo, Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert (who snipes at Netanyahu from the right, primarily over the issue of Jerusalem's sovereignty) or Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai (who has also voiced disapproval of Netanyahu's day-to-day running of the party.)

In a Yediot Ahronot editorial, leading rebel Milo accused the central committee of wanting "to repeal the system of checks and balances created by the primaries. They aspire to prevent the independence of the ministers and Knesset members and to preclude the possibility of criticising the prime minister. That is how they want to silence any protest and to neutralise any independent expression by the parliamentarians, who are meant to decide the fate of the state." (Nov 12).

Although Netanyahu was seen as emerging from the convention with far more power as prime minister, at the same time he faces ever more serious opposition from his cabinet and other unhappy Knesset members. Sources close to Netanyahu, however, have accused the media and opposition of blowing the extent of what they called an internal crisis out of proportion.

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