For peace, Bibi must break with Likud


To conclude the conflict with the Palestinians, Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, must break away from his party, the merger between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, and form a new party. In so doing, Netanyahu will face fierce opposition from several Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu members of Knesset (MKs), as well as from his coalition partners at the Jewish Home party, who will threaten to leave the coalition.

But by committing his new party to concluding the conflict, Netanyahu will gain  important political leverage – critical to implementing an end to the conflict – through the overwhelming support that he will receive from his other coalition partners, members of the opposition, the public and the international community. It is through this new party that Netanyahu can make significant progress towards implementing the two-state solution.

Likud, a national-liberal party, is in a deep crisis. In recent years, Likud has became the political home for young, highly intelligent, politically savvy, hawkish and radical MKs who are gradually replacing Likud’s older generation of liberal and pragmatic politicians.

Yariv Levin, Ze’ev Elkin, Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon, Ofir Akunis  and Moshe Feiglin, to name some of the young Likudniks, are the new Likud. As MKs, the young Likudniks promote anti-democratic legislation, try to curtail the independence of the Supreme Court and impede the activity of human rights organizations in Israel.

They are obsessed with Jewish settlements in the West Bank and messianic about the Jews’ right over what they define as the historic Land of Israel. Their political careers are heavily – if not absolutely – dependent on the settlers’ vote, and they offer no economic, social, and political vision.

For the young Likudniks, the so-called “Palestinians issue,” is not an issue. The Palestinian nation simply does not exist. Since Jews have the historical, divine and, therefore, moral rights over the entire Land of Israel, the Palestinians should turn east and join the Kingdom of Jordan, where more than half of the population is of Palestinian origin.

Because their hawkish views, controversial initiatives in the Knesset and limited political reputation are currently preventing them from mobilizing broad-based popular support, the young Likudniks’ political careers rely on two elements: first, Likud’s established brand name as the beacon of Israel’s political right; second, the perception among the majority of Israelis that Netanyahu is a responsible leader and the best person available to lead the state. In other words, their partnership with Likud and Netanyahu is motivated by opportunism and the publicity that the two offer rather than ideological affinity with the Likud’s traditional lines.

The uncompromising stance of the young Likudniks paralyzes Likud’s moderate elements – Netanyahu included – from  taking any pragmatic steps towards ending the conflict.

Today, in Israeli politics, pragmatism is equated with “Leftism,” an already odious term. Every time that Netanyahu or one of his coalition partners hints at the importance of moving forward with the Palestinians, the young Likudniks and their hawkish comrades from Yisrael Beiteinu and the Jewish Home threaten an uprising within the coalition and Likud’s institutions. There is simply no way that Netanyahu – or any other Likud leader – can make any progress in settling the conflict with Likud’s current composition.

Therefore, Netanyahu should not spend political capital or energy on clashing with the young Likudniks. Instead, he should divorce them, sending them to politically mature on the benches of opposition.

Netanyahu should assemble around him the pragmatic Likud MKs — such as Giden Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan, Silvan Shalom, Tzachi Hanegbi, Yuval Steinitz and Limor Livnat — and inaugurate a new party, whose efforts are geared at concluding the conflict with the Palestinians while guaranteeing Israel’s security and well-being.

Netanyahu should work to form a new coalition with his other coalition partners — Tzipi Livni’s “The Movement” and Yair Lapid’s “There’s a Future” — and the opposition parties, Labor, Kadima and maybe even Meretz, which already announced that they would be willing to join Netanyahu if he is serious about reaching a peace agreement.

Breaking from Likud for the sake of concluding the conflict will not mark a historical moment in the party’s history. In 2005, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Likud to form the Kadima Party following strong opposition among several Likud members to his planned disengagement from the Gaza Strip and west Bank.

Kadima’s pragmatic agenda can be dubbed “Sharonism”: the belief that for its security and prosperity Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the Palestinian territories.

Sharon’s decision left Likud without reliable leadership and allowed him to implement his disengagement plan, which did not fully materialize due to Sharon’s cerebrovascular accident. Kadima turned into a success story, becoming the first party that is neither Likud nor Labor to govern Israel. Kadima won two consecutive elections in 2006 and 2009, and its decline is mainly associated with its previous chairperson’s, Tzipi Livni, failure to form a government following the 2009 elections.

Ironically, it was Netanyahu who in 2005 led the Likud rebellion against Sharon. Today, however, as Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu is well aware that while romantic ideology might win a politician the premiership, it is pragmatism that secures his or her seat.

During 2014, Netanyahu will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing David Ben-Gurion. If Netanyahu wants to engrave his name among Israel’s political titans, he must conclude the conflict with the Palestinians.

To this end Netanyahu must break away from his Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, which is rapidly drifting towards political extremism, to form a new party that will strive to fulfill the Zionist goal of secure, prosperous Jewish and democratic state by ending the conflict with the Palestinian.

Netanyahu is not Ben-Gurion or Sharon; he is Netanyahu. Consequently, we remain with the currently unsolved question: Is Netanyahu, the individual, prepared to do whatever it takes to end the conflict? If he does, he will find majority support within the Israeli Knesset, the public, and the international community. If he does not, even a new party and popular support will not help.

Moran Stern is an adjunct lecturer at the Program for Jewish Civilization in Georgetown University’s  Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and at American University’s Center for Israel Studies. Follow him @MoranStern.

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