If Netanyahu believed in peace, he’d leave the Likud

Depending on when you read this, is it possible that the disembowelling of the Likud by the most fanatical and idiotic of annexationists will have been completed.

The process has been short and swift. Prior to the last election, Likud primary voters selected a party list lousy with reactionary, myopic territorial maximalists: Ze’ev Elkin; Yariv Levin; Tzipi Hotovely; Miri Regev; Moshe Feiglin; and Ofir Akunis. In so doing, Likud voters pushed out a number of Revisionist Zionists who were considered to be too mushy, due in part to their respect of the most basic precepts of domestic and international law and norms: Michael Eitan; Dan Meridor; and Benny Begin.

Chief among those to benefit from the primaries was Danny Danon, a cheap and shallow charlatan and shameless self-promoter whose very name ought to make one’s skin come alive in irritation. Twenty-fourth on the Likud list in 2009, Danon shot up to fifth place in 2013, thus securing ninth place on the joint Likud Beiteinu list and the right after the election to demand for himself a cosy cabinet position.

All this is remarkable considering Danon is an astonishingly vapid and incurious man with no notable legislative or intellectual accomplishments who somehow became a deputy speaker in the last Knesset and Deputy Defence Minister in this one. Indeed, considering his main political proposal consists of annexing most if not all of the West Bank, never mind the Palestinians who live there, one might say his very existence is an anti-intellectual endeavour, or at least one not grounded in the real or substantial.

Danon’s principal interest, in fact, when not propagating land theft or attempting to suppress and denigrate Israel’s minorities is augmenting his international media profile and personal brand, doing whatever is necessary to grab five more minutes of airtime. This unappetising combination of self-aggrandisement and philosophical emptiness was best demonstrated when he considered inviting Glenn Beck – a man who has at the very least flirted with anti-Semitism in his criticism of George Soros – to address the Knesset Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee, about which he knows nothing at all. Only a shameless dope would consider this to be a tasteful or desirable thing to do.

And yet in spite of or perhaps because of this, it is Danon instead of Benjamin Netanyahu who won the contest to become president of Likud’s convention this week, winning by a landslide in a race that Netanyahu was forced to pull out of pre-emptively lest he suffer an embarrassing defeat. It is Danon, too, who remains the leading candidate to become chair of the Likud Central Committee, and has vowed to in effect stymie the peace process by having all diplomatic plans run through that hawkish body.

“As it appears at the moment, Netanyahu has lost [control of] the governing institutions” of the Likud, a senior source within the party told Ha’aretz. “He knows well that today’s Likud is already not in his pocket. Its positions have moved to the right, and not just on diplomatic issues.” After months of neglect, The Jerusalem Post reports that Netanyahu will make an attempt to re-capture the Likud, to pull it back towards his brand of security-centric, secular Revisionism which nevertheless recognises the necessity of compromise. But if that fails, what then?

Netanyahu, it should be remembered, is distinct from Danon in that he ostensibly favours the two-state solution, based upon the pre-1967 borders with mutually-agreed amendments. In 2009, Netanyahu endorsed for the first time the notion of a Palestinian state in his Bar-Ilan address. “We are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state,” he proclaimed. A Likud minister informed Ha’aretz this week that Netanyahu understands what this entails, that “it will be necessary to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the West Bank and evacuate more than a few settlements.”

Periodically, Netanyahu has reaffirmed this commitment to negotiations without preconditions, and has made an especial effort in recent days and weeks to do so, even speaking of erecting some sort of ‘peace tent’ equidistant between Jerusalem and Ramallah so that he, Mahmoud Abbas, and John Kerry can sit down and talk. “And I’m committed to stay in the tent and negotiate for as long as it takes to work out a solution of peace and security between us and the Palestinians,” he said.

Whether you believe Netanyahu to be sincere in his words is irrelevant. Rather, if what he has said is true, the question then becomes why it is that he is still the leader of the Likud, a party which is not so much drifting as veering wildly towards becoming the party of a de facto one-state solution via annexation? How can Netanyahu stand up before the world and repeatedly proclaim his commitment to a Palestinian state of some sort if he does not have the backing of his party in this endeavour? Hotovely – a leading figure in the annexationist wing – made clear yesterday that they “will not permit” a move that will “destroy the settlements. Such a step has no party-base and national backing.”

Thus, if Benjamin Netanyahu were truly serious about the peace process and the two-state solution as the only means to securing a Jewish and democratic state, it would be right and proper for him to abandon the Likud if he cannot stage a counter-revolution against the Danonist wing. If it is the intent of the Likud Central Committee to block all efforts to make a Palestinian state, then Netanyahu is within his rights to cast them aside in order to get it done.

The precedent for this is one Netanyahu will recall all too painfully. In 2004, Ariel Sharon put forward a plan to disengage from Gaza, dismantle the settlements, and return the land to the Palestinians. The debate over and eventual implementation of the plan in August 2005 caused an eruption with the Likud, and it was Netanyahu who led a rejectionist wing against Sharon and disengagement. When later in 2005 Labor withdrew from Sharon’s cabinet, he formally left Likud to form Kadima, a broad-based centrist movement which favoured establishing a permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state. In March 2006, Kadima led by Ehud Olmert won national elections and formed a government with Labor, reducing Netanyahu’s Likud to 12 seats.

Kadima demonstrated that if a movement has the courage to present a peace plan (or an idea for one) to the Israeli public, it will find a decent spread of support. But it also showed what happens when parties don’t follow through on their promises. What made the Kadima project so essential between 2005 and 2009, and so successful, was that it had a clear mandate. Kadima was entrusted to follow up on the withdrawal from Gush Katif, with the support of former Labor MKs like Shimon Peres, and either carry out additional acts of disengagement in the West Bank or secure a final status agreement with the Palestinians. When it stumbled – the peace process broke down; they presided over wars in Lebanon and Gaza; Kadima rejected opportunities to lead a government in 2009; Livni failed to articulate a vision for peace (or anything else) in opposition – Kadima soon withered away and became a shrivelled rump of a faction. In January 2013, Kadima only just won two seats, and currently sits in opposition.

With this in mind, John Kerry’s recent attempts to coax Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table are more of an opportunity for Netanyahu than he might think. In the event that talks resume and it looks like something tangible might come out of them – a final status agreement, a pathway towards said concord, or at the very least some kind of document which sets out borders, leaving Jerusalem and the refugees until later – then Netanyahu not only has the opportunity to do something for his nation but in the process help drive the rejectionist, Danonist wing into obscurity. Far from putting Netanyahu in an awkward place, these talks present the chance for Netanyahu to clarify his position.

If Netanyahu produces an agreement this year or next, however big or small in scope and range, he should use it as an opportunity to break away from the Likud, to throw away the rejectionists and form a new faction committed to implementing it and engaging in further discussions, one which can form alliances across the political divide. “Netanyahu has declared that he is aware that there will be a painful evacuation of a number of settlements. I think that the Israeli public supports such a move,” Ya’akov Peri of Yesh Atid told Ha’aretz. “He may not have massive support in the cabinet, but the prime minister knows, as does everyone, that he has a majority in the Knesset.”

Breaking away from the Likud and forming a new faction – Ahrayaut Leumit, let’s call it – would further help push the annexationists into irrelevancy by making clearer the fundamental schism over the diplomatic issue. On the one side are those who support the two-state solution, the survival of Zionist achievements, and the continuation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. On the other are people who essentially reject this vision, who are in favour of making the Jewish state extinct and having Israel ostracised and isolated within the international community by illegally annexing large parts of Palestinian territory, inhabited by a people who want Israeli rule not.

This split is quite stark – Netanyahu would be wise to help make the distinction.

About the Author
Liam Hoare, a freelance writer on politics and literature, has written for The Atlantic, The Forward, and The Daily Beast