What Happened to the Likud?

Political parties have their ups and downs, but what happened to the Likud in the last elections was an implosion.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on May 9, 2006.)

Political parties have their ups and downs. After all, this is what politics in a democracy is all about. But what happened to the Likud in the last elections was an implosion, a downfall of such magnitude that it calls into question the ability of the party – for decades, one of Israel’s two major parties – to recover.

Naturally, there is more than a single reason for this catastrophe – the nonsense that the way to fortify a Jewish state is to uproot Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line that was so successfully sold to the Israeli public by an entourage of advertising executives and spin doctors; the wave of compassion that has encompassed much of the country for the poor and disadvantaged who, it was claimed, were the victims of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies at the Finance Ministry; the incompetent election campaign run by the Likud that left the party without a recognizable identity – neither for nor against Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan – and giving all but the most die-hard Likudniks little reason to vote Likud.

But there was more.

Over the past few years, the Likud – which, under Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, had been a party of ideals and clean politics, preferring the country’s interests, as perceived by the party leadership, to narrow partisan and personal interests – has degenerated into an employment office for the members of its Central Committee and their relatives, and a hotbed of minor and even major corruption. This development, in all its ugliness, reached a peak during the past four years. And this was hardly likely to attract voters to the Likud.

Power corrupts, Lord Acton said, and the Likud proved just how right he was. The Likud in power sowed the seeds of its own destruction. It attracted people lusting for power and financial gain. Special-interest groups, without any interest at all in the Likud’s ideological positions, found their way into the Central Committee, becoming power brokers whose support was sought by Likud Knesset candidates, Knesset members and ministers. As far as they were concerned, if Sharon’s disengagement plan would keep the Likud in power, it was worthy of support; and if the Likud was going to lose its grip on power by opposing it, this was good reason to abandon the party and climb on the Kadima bandwagon. They were the closest watchers of the opinion polls in the weeks before the elections.

Just when did this downward spiral begin?

An important milestone in this process was, without a doubt, the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as director general of the Likud some 14 years ago. Yes, the same Lieberman, now head of Yisrael Beitenu, who is promoting himself for the job of public security minister, who the other day in the Knesset delivered a poisonous diatribe against Arab lawmakers. He clearly has little affinity to Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s ideology; but, at the time, found in the Likud a convenient power base. This is when the manipulations in the Likud Central Committee really began.

With Sharon’s election as Likud chairman came the reign of his son, Omri, as the man in charge of stuffing the Central Committee with his supporters, regardless of their political opinions, and of handing out jobs. If the composition of the previous Knesset is considered to have been the worst in Israel’s history, it is largely due to the Likud faction in that Knesset, elected by that Central Committee under a system especially doctored to bring non-entities into the parliament.

With the establishment of Kadima, and the opinion polls predicting a dramatic success for the newborn party, most of these opportunists jumped on the bandwagon. But it was too late to salvage the Likud’s reputation. Moreover, many members of the Likud Central Committee, now supporters of Kadima, made sure that some of the best Likud Knesset members got thrown off the list in the party primaries and that potential allies of Kadima were elected.

The result is that the 12-strong Likud faction in the new Knesset includes a number of MKs who regret that they did not join Kadima, and now seem intent on making life impossible for Netanyahu. The Likud Central Committee still includes a large number of Kadima voters who maintain their Likud membership in order to try to sabotage any efforts to bring the Likud back to life.

A Likud recovery may yet be on the cards. Now that the emoluments of power are gone, the remaining opportunists are likely to drift away. If the Likud leadership adopts a clear political position in defense of the right of Jews to live in the Land of Israel, and in opposition to the forced uprooting of Jews from their homes, it should be able to drum up significant support. It will rally around it the large number of Israelis who have not been fooled by the senseless slogans that disavowing the right of Jews to live in certain parts of the Land of Israel, that forcing Israelis out of their homes should be the new Zionist strategy, and that peace can be achieved by unilateral declarations.

It should not take too long before most Israelis realize that all this is nonsense. “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” (Abraham Lincoln)

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