Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, energized by more than two years in opposition, is launching his Likud party into Israel’s general election campaign with a new look and a new top echelon.
DEBKAfile’s political sources report he is remolding it into a center-right party with a new leadership made up of the middle generation of Likud stalwarts and an infusion of outsiders from non-political occupations, rival parties, and at least two ex-generals. Negotiating in person, he is close to deals with a mixed bag of would-be star performers. They include, according to our exclusive sources, Benny Begin (son of the late prime minister Menahem Begin), Yair Shamir , Dan Meridor , former chief of staff, Lt. Gen. (Res) Moshe Yaalon , NU lawmaker Effie Eyta (a former general, who holds the key to the national religious vote), and former cabinet minister Nathan Sharansky , who is well-connected in Washington.
Likud has also offered incentives to MKs Zeev Elkin and Marina Solodkin for quitting Tzipi Livni’s party and crossing the floor. Both are reputed vote-catchers among the large Russian-born electorate.
Likud’s recast center-right image is directed at drawing the moderate, pragmatic elements of the Israeli right wing, which two years ago voted for Kadima and which have much in common with the traditional base of Labor, the Kibbutz movement. At the same time, he is offering a home for the Jewish communities of the West Bank (pop: 300,000), their supporters and the security hawks.
Netanyahu calculates that Benny Begin’s name will restore the luster of Likud’s founding fathers and their clean reputations, in contrast to Kadima’s aura of corruption.
Yair Shamir, son of Yitzhak Shamir, another Likud prime minister who was a model of integrity, will add an up-to-date, go-getting business image to the revamped Likud list. Shamir Jr. after being brought in as chairman, turned the Israeli Aviation Industries round from collapse to profitability. He came from the Air Force, which he left as brigadier after heading its logistics department. Shamir’s inclusion on the list will tell the Israeli voter that better times are ahead for an economy bogged down by a cumbersome, unhealthy bureaucracy and outdated infrastructure.
Dan Meridor, once too moderate for Likud, is invited to rejoin and bring his moderate left-wing connections along.
At the other end of the scale, Effie Eytam is reckoned to be worth two to three Knesset seats at least among the approximately 750,000 national voters, who favor retaining Judea and Samaria and the Golan. Eytam is cast as an insurance policy against the Netanyahu administration tipping over too far to the left. With him aboard, a Likud government would be held back from evacuating Jewish communities from these territories or supporting the broad territorial concessions to the Palestinians and Syria advocated by Kadima and Labor.
Likud leaders hastened to state this week that no government of theirs would honor concessions made to Syria by the transitional prime minister Ehud Olmert, who announced his intention of resuming the indirect dialogue with Damascus before the elections.
Yaalon, designated for the key slot of defense minister, is a critical piece in Netanyahu’s jigsaw puzzle. A member of Kibbutz Grofit, the former chief of staff may bring Likud its first substantial contribution from the kibbutz movement. It consists of the Labor and Kadima factions, which seriously question the two-state solution of the Israel-Arab dispute propounded by President Bush and embraced by prime minister Ariel Sharon and his leading disciples, foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert. Yaalon’s views on security, the dispute with the Palestinians and Iran, are as hawkish as those of Eytam or the Likud right wing – but on the economy, social gap and education, he would lean to the left of Netanyahu’s free market philosophy.
Netanyahu went to work on his dream team after his earlier back-door, power-sharing deal with Labor leader Ehud Barak and talks with Livni’s Kadima rival Shaul Mofaz foundered. The former has since opted for contesting Livni for the left-wing margin, while Mofaz has been too slow to decide where he belongs.
By February 10, 2009, when Israel votes for a new parliament, government and prime minster, the next US president will have spent 20 days in the White House and Iran will be assembling its first nuclear bomb or warhead. The newly-elected government in Jerusalem will need all its energy and resources to confront the problems which the outgoing administration has long avoided.