There is growing speculation in right-wing quarters that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be planning to split the Likud Party and form a new Knesset faction prior to next year's election, just as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did in 2005, resulting in the creation of Kadima.
Netanyahu recently forged a "super-coalition" with Kadima that thus far has served to bring about great tension in the government as ideologues from both parties clash over the issue of Jewish settlement in the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria.
Central to the debate is the small neighborhood of Ulpana in the long-established Samarian community of Beit El. Israel's Supreme Court has ruled that five of the houses in Ulpana were built on a piece of land that still legally belongs to a local Palestinian Arab, and therefore must be demolished, even though the Palestinian man has no hope of utilizing the land that sits within the municipal boundaries of Beit El.
Since the new land claim only came five years after Ulpana was built, and since the land in question has long been part of Beit El (the local municipality actually purchased it, but apparently from the wrong Palestinian man), right-wing lawmakers are pushing a new bill that would legalize the construction there and in other settlements.
Netanyahu's new Kadima allies, including party leader Shaul Mofaz, are vehemently opposed to the bill. Netanyahu himself has tried to kill the bill, and insists that he will comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
It was a similar political decision that led to the Likud's first split. The party simply was unable to remain united after Sharon planned and executed the forced evacuation of Gaza's 8,000 Jewish residents. While Ulpana is much smaller, Likud officials say it will mark only the beginning of a larger removal of Jews from Judea and Samaria, and therefore must be combatted even more vigorously than the Gaza Disengagement.
If the right-wing members of his coalition and his own party do stand firm on the Ulpana issue, a growing number of politicians and pundits are speculating that Netanyahu will leave the Likud and form a new faction with Mofaz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who last year quit the left-wing Labor Party.
"The possibility [that Netanyahu will leave the Likud] is quite possible, but it has a price," Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely told the right-wing radio station Arutz Sheva. "The question is whether Netanyahu is thinking only about the next Knesset or whether he wants long-term leadership."
Though Kadima is today the largest faction in the Knesset, polls show it will shrink significantly in the next election, and the same will happen with any new party Netanyahu forms, warned Hotovely.
Also speaking to Arutz Sheva, Likud leadership challenger Moshe Feiglin backed up Hotovely's assessment saying, "There has been talk in the Likud of the possibility of such a split. This is a general feeling that transcends sectors and camps within the Likud."
Were Netanyahu to leave the Likud (and we stress that this is all just speculation at the moment), the party would undoubtedly move further to the right, a phenomenon that would greatly benefit Feiglin in his quest for the chairmanship, but would also likely hurt the Likud in future elections.
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