The call by a senior ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for early Likud party primaries has Israel’s media wildly speculating that Israel’s second-longest-serving leader needs an early primary to fend off growing challenges to his leadership within his own party.
The call by Israel’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a staunch Netanyahu ally, is presumed to have been made if not at the Prime Minister’s direction, certainly with his tacit approval.
Unlike Netanyahu, who, by Israeli standards, remains remarkably popular, the party he leads is not, given its seemingly constant efforts to trim its leader’s sails. Netanyahu has been subject to frequent attempts to reduce his authority as party leader, most recently this past May when the lilliput head of the Likud party’s Central Committee tried and failed to seize control over the party’s policy-making apparatus from Netanyahu.
By Israeli law, parties must hold primaries to select leadership slates before they are permitted to participate in national elections. Thus, if Netanyahu did want to call national elections before the current Knesset term expires in mid 2017, he would need to hold a Likud party primary earlier still.
Considered by many to be the master of Israeli political intrigue, Netanyahu’s flirtation with yet another early national election has more to do with securing his ability to lead his own party than in securing his ability to lead the country. Netanyahu not only enjoys unprecedentedly strong national support as the country’s leader, but there isn’t even a consensus on who should run against him.
If he does move up the date for a Likud party primary, it would be the third time he has done so. Both of the previous attempts, in 2007 and again in 2011, designed to put as much distance as possible between the acrimony of an intra-party food fight and a scheduled national election as possible, served him well.
As Netanyahu’s popularity and leadership remain strong, his party’s leadership is shrinking. With the recent defections of several disgruntled back benchers, the faction of the party over which Netanyahu exercises dependable control has fallen in recent months to roughly 20 members in Israel’s 120-member Parliament. No matter his national popularity, the 63-year-old Netanyahu still needs enough votes in Parliament to pass legislation and budgets. To achieve his purposes, any early party primary would need to be held before the next meeting of the Likud Central Committee, now tentatively planned for early 2015. By passing key changes to the party’s decision-making process and his own ability to have a significant say as to how the party’s leadership is constituted, Netanyahu would be able to marginalize those within his own ranks who were always trying to undermine his leadership.
For years, Netanyahu has faced endless sniping from a small but very vocal camp of right-wing Likud members who are critical–sometimes savagely so–of his leadership. Their critique, simply put, is that Netanyahu is sitting on his high approval ratings rather than using them to more aggressively secure the security and strength of the Jewish state in its eternal battle for survival against its many enemies.