Likud chooses ultra-hawks, clips Netanhayus wings

jerusalem | Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a setback Dec. 9 in his quest to reclaim the prime minister’s office in Israel when his front-running Likud Party chose a slate of Knesset candidates even more hawkish than him.

The outcome could weaken his party’s popularity, and even if Netanyahu wins a Feb. 10 election, it could limit his ability to negotiate peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

Hours after the primary was over, Netanyahu took steps to change the results. He sent a representative to Likud’s internal court, asking that the order of the candidates be rearranged.

The big primary winner was Netanyahu’s nemesis, Moshe Feiglin. While Netanyahu opposes the current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and hopes to limit contacts to economic cooperation, Feiglin goes much further. His theocratic platform calls for banning minority Arab citizens from the parliament, encouraging non-Jews to leave the country and pulling Israel out of the United Nations.

Feiglin won the 20th spot on the list, and Feiglin-endorsed candidates won 19 of the top 36 slots.

However, Netanyahu sent his former aide, Ophir Akunis, to petition the party’s internal court to change the order of the slots, asking for an upward shift of potentially voter-friendly candidates (those that represent districts, interest groups and women). That action would also move candidates (such as Feiglin and former “rebel” Knesset members Michael Ratzon and Ehud Yatom) down the list into less-electable slots.

Netanyahu, who resisted peace efforts when he was prime minister from 1996-99, hoped to present a more mainstream list of candidates to bolster support for his party, backing popular ex-generals, politicians and others for the list.

But party members instead chose candidates with uncompromising views, led by Feiglin, who founded a movement that blocked highway intersections around the country in 1995 to protest partial peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

Others included Benny Begin, the son of former Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He told Army Radio “there will be no [peace] agreement in the near future” because of Arab rejection of Israel.

Rivals did not hide their glee at the blow to Netanyahu’s prestige. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima, who is not seeking re-election, said the primary showed that Likud “has become an extreme right-wing party that would lead the state of Israel to a corner of isolation.”

The election is set for three weeks after the inauguration of Barack Obama, who has pledged to work for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Even if Netanyahu intended to press for concessions to the Palestinians for peace — and many doubt he would — pressure from within his own party could stop him.

Recent polls have shown Netanyahu’s Likud with a 10-seat lead over Kadima, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. But they have also shown that the presence of Feiglin on the Likud list could scare away a significant number of potential voters. A Likud insider estimated a loss of three or four seats, while some analysts predicted even more erosion.

Livni reveled in Netanyahu’s predicament. “The Likud list is not my problem. It’s Bibi’s problem,” she said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “It’s a weight around his neck, not mine.”

Even the most optimistic polls had Likud winning about 35 seats in the 120-seat parliament, forcing Netanyahu to patch together a coalition with powerful partners from the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-hawkish sectors.

Losing even a handful of those 35 because of the Feiglin effect could drop Likud into a tie with Kadima, a centrist movement started by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That would make coalition-building more difficult and long-term stability doubtful.

Israel’s electoral system, based on voting for parties instead of individual candidates, lends itself to multi-party results and a fractured parliament.

Over the past decade, traditional parties have been losing strength, and sectorial parties have been gaining.

Gil Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.