Netanyahu: Uncontested Leader of Israeli Right

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under immense pressure from the Americans, he faces no real political challenges in the primaries from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.

netanyahu-israeli-right-wingThe current round of American-mediated talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) is at a delicate stage. Secretary Kerry is on the verge of presenting the parties with the suggested American ideas regarding the principles of a successful solution.

Consequently things are heating up in the Israeli political arena under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To start with, three centrist politicians who entertain the aspiration to replace Netanyahu include current Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and the new Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog. However they are all lagging behind in every public opinion poll, and beyond their lack of personal popularity, the three, judging by the same polls, do not manage to expand the demographic-electoral base of their parties.

They maintain support in the “Tel-Aviv state,” a term used to describe the more liberal, secular, cosmopolitan-oriented city, which is always contrasted with the more somber and religious Jerusalem.

The problem of the center and left in Israel is that Jerusalem (and many other towns in Israel) represents many more Israelis than Tel-Aviv. Numbers matter, and the Israeli domestic arena is likely to remain dominated by the right-wing, both the  religious and secular wings of the nationalist camp, as it is often referred to in Israel.

It is therefore, the internal dynamic of this political camp which is of the essence, and there is in it a lot of action, though somewhat behind the scenes.

Three politicians are outflanking Netanyahu and are staking a claim to be the successors

Moshe Ya’alon 

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is ostensibly the premier’s top loyalist. However he lacks personal charisma, is a late-comer to right-wing politics, and does not have a solid basis of support within Likud. Perhaps Ya’alon’s only advantage is that he lacks personal ambition and only truly cares about security issues which moderates could support.

Avigdor Lieberman

Left of Netanyahu is Avigdor Lieberman, the old-new foreign minister. Left of Netanyahu? Well, yes… Not the folkloristic side of Israeli politics, rather the unfamiliar side of Lieberman’s political profile. Lieberman has always focused on the ethnic element of the conflict as his main issue, and that means that in the negotiations he advocates solutions which will bring about a major demographic change between Jews and Arabs.

He was always in favor of an exchange of territories between Israel and the future Palestinian state, so that heavily Arab-populated areas within pre-1967 Israel would be handed over to the Palestinians in exchange for West Bank Jewish settlement blocs.

Lieberman is also ready to relinquish Arab-populated areas which are part of the municipal domain of Jerusalem, but are far from the Old City and carry no religious and symbolic significance to Jews.  So, while Ya’alon represents security hawkishness, Lieberman is ethnic, not territory minded. He also is the leader of the largest party of Jews from the former Soviet Union, who are mainly nationalists and not religious. That is clearly a distinction between him and the third contender, Naftali Bennet, minister of economic affairs, and rising star of the Right.

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Naftali Bennet

Lieberman is not popular among the Likud rank and file membership, which is mostly of Sephardic origin, much more traditionalist than the Russian Jews, and no less nationalistic. This is the combination that Bennett represents, and this is why he is gaining momentum.

Bennett took his near-moribund old national-religious party from 3 to 12 seats, and in the process revamped its image, changed its name to the Jewish Home party, incorporated secular politicians and stole huge amount of votes from Likud.

He can be much more acceptable to many ordinary Likudniks, but he has his share of challenges which can and may very well slow him down, if not outright stop his momentum.

First, he runs a party which is still dominated by rabbis. And while these rabbis did not interfere with his election campaign over a year ago, they are back in the forefront now, and some of them are so militant that is difficult even for traditionalist, observant Likudniks to accept them.

Second, he seems to be the torch-bearer of the settlers, perhaps even serves as their chief lobbyist in the Knesset and government, an understandable position for a sectarian leader, but not for somebody who aspires for national leadership. Bennett seems simply too extreme to be acceptable to moderate, middle of the road Likudniks and other right-wingers. This is a distinct leaderless electoral group, and Bennett cannot fill this role.

Ya’alon can. Lieberman probably not, but the problem for all three of them is that what may be enough to win the primaries will fall short of being enough to win general elections. That is why Netanyahu is still the leader, as he proved his ability to win general elections. Yet he is under immense pressure from the Americans, and his impending meeting with President Obama may prove crucial, to both the peace process and the future of the Israeli right-wing.

Josef Olmert received his PhD at the London School of Economics, and is an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina. He has published extensively on the Middle East, and participated in Israeli-Syrian peace talks. Read other articles by Josef.