Netanyahu loses ground to radical right within his party

An Israeli deputy minister and a key figure of the radical right in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud has managed to score political points at the premier's expense in internal party elections, media said Wednesday.

The Likud central committee on Tuesday began voting for the leadership of the party's governing institutions, with deputy defence minister Danny Danon elected as chairman of the faction's conference.

The role is largely symbolic, but the move belies the growing influence of the hardline settler lobby within Netanyahu's party, press reports said.

Although Netanyahu will remain as party head, members will on Sunday choose who will preside over three key institutions -- the central committee, the Likud bureau, and the secretariat -- in a vote likely to highlight exactly how much of a threat the premier is facing from party rebels.

Danon, 42, who recently sparked uproar when he said Netanyahu's government was not serious about a Palestinian state, is widely expected to be chosen as chairman of the central committee, which decides on all policy issues and resolutions.

Leadership of the Likud bureau, which sets the party's ideology, is expected to go to deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin, another far-right party rebel.

And one of the frontrunners for the chairmanship of the Likud secretariat is Miri Regev, whose political outlook is very close to that of Danon and Elkin.

Danon's remarks this month espoused a position firmly at odds with Netanyahu's public stance on the two-state solution and came as US Secretary of State John Kerry makes a major investment to get the peace process back on track after a hiatus of nearly three years.

"If Secretary Kerry, whose efforts we support, were to pitch a tent halfway between here and Ramallah.. I'm in it, I'm in the tent," Netanyahu told the Washington Post last week.

"And I'm committed to stay in the tent and negotiate for as long as it takes."

But within both his party and the ruling coalition, a growing number of key figures are openly expressing their opposition to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

"Danon's rightwing extremism on diplomatic issues may not have seized control of the coalition, but it is definitely conquering the ruling political party, slowly but surely," wrote Yossi Verter in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

A day before the vote for the party conference, Netanyahu "quietly withdrew from the race... He knew he would be defeated," Verter said.

"Netanyahu now finds himself in the worst possible situation for a party chairman," he wrote. "He's not a player. He doesn't count."

Verter said it was not clear why Netanyahu had simply backed down without a fight.

"It's hard to know what he's thinking: Either he has lost his fighting spirit and is giving up, or in his heart, he knows that in the next election, he won't be running at the head of this party," he concluded.