Israel PM claims ‘victory’ against party hardliners

Tel Aviv, April 30: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed a major victory against hardliners in his right-wing Likud party in a procedural vote some media on Friday dismissed as a major spin campaign.

The party’s 2,525-strong central committee voted by 77 percent in favour of the premier’s proposal to delay by a year internal party elections amid concerns a more hardline makeup could have tied Netanyahu’s hands in any future US-brokered peace negotiations.

Netanyahu had gone all out to rally the troops for the vote that was painted as a make-or-break battle against hardliners.

But some Israeli newspapers wondered whether the premier really needed the vote.

“Benjamin Netanyahu could allow himself a smile after the Likud central committee vote … but it seems that the real winner in the Likud yesterday was the spin,” the Maariv daily said.

Israel Hayom, which is considered close to Netanyahu, said: “It is not at all certain that Netanyahu needed these elections.”

The impressive, and higher than expected turnout — more than 80 percent — clearly showed the premier has undisputed control of the party, the newspaper said.

Commentators had claimed earlier that Netanyahu would face an uphill battle to gain the two-thirds majority necessary to win Thursday’s vote.

The prime minister himself had insisted ahead of the vote that achieving such a majority was “an almost impossible mission.”

Opposing him was a group led by hardline settler Moshe Feiglin, convicted of sedition by a court in 1997 after organising a campaign of civil disobedience against the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

Feiglin’s supporters wanted a party convention to be held now so they could rally opposition to Netanyahu and limit his ability to end Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian East Jerusalem and other thorny issues in the peace process.

Movement towards a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks, suspended since Israel’s war on Gaza on December 2008, has shown signs of picking up. On Sunday, Netanyahu said he expected indirect, US-brokered negotiations to get under way within days.

Feiglin said on Thursday that Netanyahu was preparing to make significant moves to the Arab side and accused him of trying to immobilise internal Likud opposition.

US President Barack Obama has been pressing Israel to relaunch peace negotiations.

The Palestinians have refused direct talks unless Israel freezes illegal settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which Israel illegally seized by war in 1967, in a move condemned by the internationally.

Netanyahu has declared a partial moratorium on new construction in the West Bank but refuses to freeze building anywhere in occupied Jerusalem.

The Israeli media have said Netanyahu has quietly put the brakes on illegal Jerusalem settlement activity as a gesture to Washington, but Netanyahu and members of his government have adamantly denied the reports.