A Likud Insurrection

Insurrection has broken out in the Likud Party against PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu. The opening shot was fired Sunday nightby Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo, one of Netan-yahu’s leading rivals andcritics in the party. “A dramatic political change is about to takeplace. There is a good chance that the leadership of Israel will bereplaced,” Milo said.

Among Milo’s certain allies at present are Likud Knesset membersBenny Begin and Dan Meridor — both of whom earlier resigned fromNetanyahu’s Cabinet — and David Re’em. All four have called publiclyfor Netanyahu’s replacement as prime minister. A probable ally isCommunications Minister Limor Livnat, who has stopped just short ofrebellion — at least in public.

But the list of potential insurgents includes every senior figurein the Likud: Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Infrastructure MinisterAriel Sharon and every other Cabinet minister and Knesset member inthe party.

All were badly burned by Netanyahu and his chief aide, AvigdorLieberman, at last week’s Likud Central Committee convention. The2,700-member convention voted to do away with primaries for the LikudKnesset list, which will give Netanyahu near-absolute power to puthis loyalists in the Knesset and keep his critics out.

Before the convention, Netanyahu had promised the Likud Knessetfaction that he would quash the issue, but once the convention gotunderway, it was he and Lieberman who ensured that the primaries werevoted out.

The televised convention proved a huge embarrassment to Netan-yahuand the Likud. It was an orgy of greed, power-drunkenness andrevenge. “Did we win power just for the sake of handing out patronagejobs?” Livnat demanded. “Yes, yes!” the party activists roared back.

Behind the scenes, there were nonstop intrigues anddouble-crosses. “I was asked to strengthen the prime minister’s hand,but I don’t know whether they meant his right hand or his left hand,”Sharon said, sarcastically.

A cameraman on the floor said that he was hired by one ofNetanyahu’s lieutenants to record anyone speaking, even privately,against the move to end the primaries.

Likud leaders protested that this was the sort of thing done indictatorial regimes. The prime minister, who was in England and theUnited States this week, said that he was “shocked” by the news. Healso said that he “understood” the concerns in his party, and wouldtry to alleviate them. At the same time, though, Lieberman and histroops were guarding the fort — trying to block the Likud Knessetfaction from launching an inquiry into the Byzantine proceedings atthe convention.

In his 17 months in office, Netanyahu has continually aroused theenmity of various leaders in his party — some think he’s too hawkishon the peace process; others think he’s too dovish. Many claim thatNetanyahu promised them positions that ultimately were given toothers. Little by little, a broad consensus formed around twocomplaints: that Netanyahu was trying to run a one-man government –with Lieberman as his enforcer — and that his word couldn’t betrusted.

For the Likud leadership, the Central Committee convention wasblatant, in-your-face proof of these two perceptions. Grumblingsabout the prime minister were no longer being kept off the record.More fatefully, they were now escalating into an organized move tobring Netanyahu down. It started as an underground movement, thenMilo took it public.

The popular Tel Aviv mayor indicated that the first goal was totake the Likud away from Netanyahu — by convincing a majority of theparty’s Knesset members to renounce Netanyahu’s leadership. Thiswould give the insurgents the right to call themselves “the Likud,”and would leave Netanyahu, effectively, on his own, without apolitical party behind him.

“In due time, we will choose a leader to challenge Netanyahu forthe prime ministership — someone who is acceptable to all of us,”Milo said.

He wasn’t mentioning any names, but the prime candidates areconsidered to be Milo himself and Meridor, and, if they join therebellion, Olmert and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

But for Netanyahu to be driven out of office before the nextscheduled election, in 2000, the Knesset has to vote no-confidence inhim. There are 52 left-wing opposition members who are fully ready todo so; nine more from the ruling coalition are needed for a 61-votemajority, which would force new elections for prime minister and theKnesset.

However, it is considered a given in Israeli politics that Knessetmembers will not do anything that might jeopardize their seats. Theywould not vote Netanyahu out if it meant they would have to riskbeing voted out themselves in new elections.

But if 80 Knesset members vote no-confidence in Netanyahu, therewould be new elections for prime minister only; the current Knessetmembers would remain snugly in place.

Thus, it is widely believed that if nine coalition Knesset membersjoin with the opposition for a 61-vote majority against Netanyahu,another 19 will almost automatically fall into line and bring theno-confidence vote up to 80 Knesset members — if for no other reasonthan to avoid having to stand for re-election.

Netanyahu was said to be cutting short his trip abroad so that hecould hurry back to Israel and try to put down the rebellion. But hehas a grave problem: Some of the most powerful forces in his ownparty have openly declared war on him, and after last week’s LikudCentral Committee convention, he may not have many soldiers willingto fight on his side.