Dan Meridor, Israeli minister of intelligence and atomic energy, was voted… (Sebastian Scheiner / Associated…)
JERUSALEM — Israel's conservative Likud Party may have dominated last month's national elections, but it faces a historic identity crisis that could affect its survival and ability to govern, says longtime Likud member Dan Meridor.
As a leader of Likud's centrist faction, Meridor, 65, was voted off the party's Knesset slate during the fall primaries, along with other perceived moderates such as Benny Begin, son of the late Likud founder and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
As part of Likud's preelection shift to the right, the party joined forces with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to offer a joint list of candidates who were seen as the most hawkish Likud has put forward in years.
Though Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu won the chance to form the next government, Meridor says voters rejected the party's rightward lurch, leaving Likud with 20 seats today compared with 27 in the last government. Many Likud voters shifted to other parties, such as Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid or Naftali Bennett's nationalist Jewish Home.
Meridor, who remains the nation's minister of intelligence and atomic energy until a new government is formed, told The Times that he had not given up on the party that swept him out of the Knesset. But he said Likud faced some soul-searching if it wanted to remain one of Israel's largest parties.
What was the biggest lesson learned about Israeli voters in the Jan. 22 elections?
There was an attempt to find something new. Something about Lapid and Bennett made them more attractive because they were not yet in politics. Secondly, voters don't like the extremes. As Likud looked less centrist and more right, it lost. Likud lost the center by first going with Lieberman and then voting people like me out in the primary. The public responded by saying they don't want that. Likud is the biggest party, but they lost seats.
Is there any sense of panic or introspection inside the party about that?
I can't speak for the Likud leadership now. They preferred other people to me. But I think it's quite clear they changed course and lost the center. Likud has never been an extreme-right-wing party. It's for national causes, but also for the individual: rule of law, constitution, human rights. If Likud keeps moving to the right, they will lose. But if they understand this and go through a soul-searching process, then they may regain the votes. For Likud's soul, character and identity, they need to go back to the center and not compete with the extreme right.
Is there still a place in Likud for moderates like you?
This is the question. But I'm not an important story anymore. I tried my best. I made my views known without concern for elections. I stood for my principles and it didn't work for me.
Many say Likud moderates lost in the primaries because West Bank settlers and other conservatives joined Likud solely to vote moderates like you off the list. Then on election day they voted for other parties.
This phenomenon was there, but I can't quantify it. There was sort of a hostile takeover. The fact that Benny Begin was voted out alongside me means that it was not only about Palestinians and the peace process.
Benny is very stern about not giving up an inch [of land], and I think we should have a Palestinian state. We are diametrically opposed on that issue. But both of us are what they call liberals because we stand for rule of law, human rights, respect for decisions of the Supreme Court. Those are basic Likud values.
It seems like a party with conflicting values. Because of that, Likud was unable to agree on an official platform this election. The party includes moderates like you and, at the same time, newly elected lawmaker Moshe Feiglin, who has spoken about annexing the West Bank and expelling Israeli Arabs. Does Likud still make sense as a single party?
Well, the Democratic Party in the U.S. at one time had Jesse Jackson and on the other hand Joseph Lieberman. A big party has shades and differences.
True, but in the U.S. there are two main parties, so they need to serve as an umbrella. In Israel there are dozens of parties, with new flavors created all the time.
I agree it can reach a point where some people, such as those who were voted in this election, couldn't live ideologically with the people who were voted out. But I have always been in favor of bigger parties, even though that comes at the price of ideological purity.
There are two trends. One says we have 50 parties and everyone has exactly what he wants. Or you have bigger parties with less certainty or clarity. To govern, we need bigger parties. It's very hard to have a coalition of 10 parties. In a big party, you can allow some differences to play a role, as long as there is a basic common understanding.
Does that understanding exist in Likud? I'm not even sure if the party officially supports a two-state solution.
Good question. I've spoken in favor of it for 20 years. Netanyahu joined me four years ago. But you're right, the party as such did not ever take a decision. Even the government did not. It calls for a decision. It's not a minor issue.
In some ways, this new, more conservative Likud Knesset delegation makes the party look more ...
More coherent? Maybe. This is an historic choice. I don't like it. Not just because of me. I'm not looking for a job. I could have joined one of the other parties and been in the Knesset. Many offered. But I don't think it's right to jump from one party to another.
Likud historically was a party that balanced the national and the individual. That's part of its genetic code. Going to one extreme is not Likud. I hope they come back.