On the eve of his most testing American visit since he becamePrime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu was humiliated, live on prime-timetelevision, last Monday by the least likely of dissidents -- theblue-collar ward party bosses of the Likud central committeeconvention.
Their quarrel, as one TV commentator put it, was not over policyor principle, peace or territory, synagogue and state, but over whoowns the grocery store. Others wrote of a mutiny, of a golem turningon its creator, even of a potential split in the Likud.
The 3,000 grass-roots activists rejected Netanyahu's nominee tochair the party convention, the loyal, plodding health minister,Yehoshua Matza. The prime minister could live with that but not withtheir raucous refusal to postpone a vote on the way the Likud choosesits candidates for the Knesset. Last-minute efforts were being madeon Tuesday to persuade them to think again, but the damage was done.
In fact, the argument was less a matter of Netanyahu versus theactivists, who still hailed him as "Bibi, king of Israel," than ofincumbent Knesset members and ministers versus the grass roots.Netanyahu was trapped in the middle. Bear with me while I explain.
Last time around, both Likud and Labor chose their candidates forprime minister and for the Knesset by American-style primaries.Previously, it was the central committee that picked the Likudrunners. To stay on the slate, Knesset members had to keep the wardbosses sweet. When the Likud was in power, as it has been for 16 ofthe last 20 years, they were repaid in the sweaty currency ofpolitics -- government projects for their neighborhoods, jobs onpublic corporations, VIP guests glittering their daughters' weddingsand sons' bar mitzvahs.
The primaries deprived them of much of this patronage. Ministersand Knesset members could appeal over the heads of the local powerbrokers to the 200,000 registered Likud members, many of whom arenever seen from one election to the next and need not even be Likudvoters.
At the same time -- and this is where the plot thickens -- theuppity ministers and Knesset members insisted on demonstrating theirindependence from the party leader, who thought that direct electionof prime minister had made him omnipotent. If Netanyahu could abolishprimaries and revert to the old ways, he would, at one and the sametime, call his fractious colleagues to heal and cement his partybase.
The director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, AvigdorLieberman, is widely credited with orchestrating a campaign amongcentral committee members, the overwhelming majority of whom owetheir seats to him, to restore the old system.
At the beginning of November, however, Likud ministers joinedforces and insisted that Netanyahu stick to primaries. The primeminister, shaken by their unanimity, backed down, tactically atleast, agreeing to postpone the central committee vote for a fewmonths.
The trouble was that the convention delegates, sensing arestoration of their old power, refused to reverse themselves.Lieberman lost control. When a pale, incredulous Netanyahu appealedto them on Monday night for a coolheaded assessment of the respectivemerits of the two electoral systems, they jeered and shouted himdown. That wasn't on their agenda.
Cheerleaders climbed onto chairs and led them in chanting, "No!no! Decide today!" They waved printed placards that called for "Powerto the central committee!" The burly leader of the insurrection,Yisrael Katz, who studied with Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi andonce worked for Ariel Sharon, loomed over the prime minister and toldhim bluntly that the convention would decide.
"They," he reminded him, "are the ones who registered the 200,000voters, who bring them to the polls. It is due to their efforts thatthe prime minister, ministers and Knesset members are elected."
Yossi Verter, Ha'aretz's political correspondent, suggested that avisitor from another planet would have thought that Katz was primeminister and the wan figures at his side (Netanyahu and other Likudministers) were Katz's cowering subordinates.
As commentator Bina Barzel wrote in the mass-circulation YediotAharonot: "This was the last thing Prime Minister Netanyahu needednow: a mutiny at the Likud convention, delegates standing updecisively to him and his leadership. These events highlightedNetanyahu's isolation. He is isolated from ministers, who arealienated from him, and he is isolated vis-à-vis Knessetmembers and the party convention. It can no longer be concealed: Asplit is hovering over Likud."
It may be premature to predict Netanyahu's downfall or his party'sdemise. He has bounced back before. But these cumulative blows to hisauthority leave him limping. Neither he nor the leaders of AmericanJewry he faces in the United States can be confident that he speaksfor a united Likud, let alone for a united Israel.
Netanyahu Is Coming To Town
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to be inLos Angeles on Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 17-18, for an intensive24-hour round of speeches and meetings.
Netanyahu will start out on Monday with a luncheon address to theLos Angeles World Affairs Council at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. In theafternoon, he will meet with some 250 leaders of the JewishFederation Council of Greater Los Angeles, AIPAC and Israel Bonds.
That evening, the prime minister will participate in acelebrity-studded fund-raiser for the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorahand confer the organization's King David Award on actor Kirk Douglas.
Early Tuesday, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman willtake part in an economic forum, co-sponsored by the Milken Institute,to explore the opportunities and challenges facing Israel's economy.
The final stop on Netanyahu's visit, before he returns to Israel,is the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where he will tour the Museum ofTolerance.
Earlier this week, Bobby Brown, Netanyahu's adviser on Diasporaaffairs, was in Los Angeles to nail down details of the visit.
There has been some disappointment in Jerusalem that PresidentClinton was unwilling or unable to meet with Netanyahu in Washington.However, Clinton will be in Beverly Hills on Sunday evening for aRock the Vote benefit, and there is a possibility that the Americanand Israeli chief executives might get together on Monday.