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Understanding Israel’s ‘Deal System’

While the Israeli media wrongly claimed that the Likud had made an extreme shift to the right in recent primaries, some commentators were correcting in observing the existence of a deal-system. (Part IV in a series about the Likud primaries).

The Likud's top 35 candidates approach the stage as the results of the Likud primaries are announced (Nov. 26, 2012).

The Likud's top 35 candidates approach the stage as the results of the Likud primaries are announced (Nov. 26, 2012).
Photo Credit: Flash90

This is part IV in a series about the Likud’s Knesset list and its primaries, which were held November 25-26th. The previous articles (here, here, and here) dealt with the claims by the media that the Likud had, as a result of the recent primaries shifted to the extreme right. I explained how these claims were out of touch with reality: The Likud list remained very similar to that of 2008. Ideologically right-leaning candidates did very well, but so did non-ideological or media-acceptable candidates.

All in all, only five sitting Members of Knesset did not achieve “secure” spots on the list. The common denominator between all three was not a lack of extremism or Leftist policy (only two were supporters of Palestinian statehood), but a general lack of campaigning and public activism.

One claim made by some commentators, however,  had some validity. It was that there was a “deal system” in place.

This is not unique to the Likud. It pervades the entire Israeli political system. Consider, for example, the fact that the government in Israel is formed through negotiations and haggling over ministries, budgets and policies. Contrast that with the U.S. system in which after the president is elected, he chooses his cabinet with the consent of the Senate and then presents a budget to congress for approval. There is much less haggling that goes on because the President has already one the election and his appointments can’t jeopardize that. Of course, negotiation, compromise and deals are inseparable from the political process, but in a party-list system, deal-making is the primary feature. (Note: a “party-list” system should not be confused with a parliamentary system, which can be a district/constituency system, a party-list system or a combination of the two).

The deal-making that some pundits referred to was the fact that certain candidates and power-factions in the Likud made cross-endorsement deals to ensure mutual success. Thus, for example, Moshe Feiglin and two high ranking, but non-ideological Likud members, Silvan Shalom and Yisrael Katz were reported to have made such an agreement. Gilad Erdan and Gideon Sa’ar were said to be working together. Other nationalist candidates like Yariv Levin and Kety Shitreet were also said to receive support from Feiglin.

Technically, candidates in a party primary are competitors, each one striving for more votes than the others in order to get a higher ranking on the party’s list of candidates for the parliament. Throughout most of their term, Members of Knesset in the same party are in fact locked in this sort of popularity contest. But come the primaries themselves, in practice, the candidates don’t remain in complete competition. At that point, candidates join together, either completely or to a limited degree, often in odd ways to ensure mutual success.

Because voters can choose a number of candidates – in the Likud primaries, voters could choose 12 national candidates and one district candidate – candidates can make cross-endorsement deals which will ensure those who are part of the deal receive a great deal more votes then they could have if they ran on their own.

Three voting lists distributed during the Likud primaries in Jerusalem. Close inspection reveals that the list of recommended candidates is different on each, meaning that the particular vote-contractor who distributed these gave large numbers of votes to more than 12 candidates, making him popular among a great many of the Likud’s list. These were just three I picked up off the floor at the end of the voting. Who knows how many different lists were distributed and what deals were made with whom for each set of votes given to each candidate.  

Let’s say, for instance, that Candidate A has 2000 supporters within the party, while Candidate B also has 2000, and Candidate C has 3000. Candidates A and B can join forces, asking their supporters to vote for both of them, providing each of them with 4000 votes, beating out Candidate C even though he is more popular than each of them separately. With a total of 12+1 votes, the possibilities for deals between the candidates abound. Add to the mix interest groups who control large swaths of votes, who can not only support certain candidates but can trade support with other interest groups or candidates in exchange for votes for their favored candidate, the system becomes vastly more complicated.

Take for example, the scenario where candidates A and B combined forces to beat Candidate C. Let’s say that to ensure their victory, Candidates A and B or one of them seek additional support from a non-candidate who will demand that in exchange for his support them, they must support Candidate D, at least to the extent that he provides them with support. Now Candidate D will receive an additional 2000 votes (or more or less depending on the exact deal), potentially enabling him to beat out Candidate C as well. So now, Candidate C has done the worst even though on his own he is the strongest candidate. Again, the possibilities are endless.

The problem stems from the fact, as I explained in my article in the Jerusalem Post at the start of my Knesset campaign, that a very small number of people are registered as members of parties. This is due to the complexities of registering for a party (see the article for more information on that) and the fact that the public doesn’t fully understand how important it is.

In my article, I estimated that about 4.4% of Israeli citizens were registered for a party in which a primary was held. But following the publication of the article, Kadima cancelled its primaries, so that number dropped significantly. As I explained, with such small numbers of people voting, many take advantage and ask friends, family and colleagues to a political party as a favor. The person who does this becomes the most effective, if not only, conduit of information about candidates to those members. In many cases, the new member has registered with the specific goal of voting as instructed by the person who registered him. That person can then bargain with their votes. For example, he can tell a member of Knesset, “I will instruct those I registered to vote for you in exchange for…”

With a relatively small pool of voters, even small numbers (hundreds or even less) matter, and larger, but still relatively small numbers (one thousand or more members) are dominating. Those who master the art of registering members for the purpose of bargaining with their votes are known as vote-contractors. Some of the most effective ones create pyramid schemes by which they can register thousands of voters. Some register the members of an institution such as a yeshiva or a union. As with all people involved in politics, some have selfish motives and others may have idealistic or ideological motives.

Regardless of the motives of the vote-contractor, there is no way for a candidate to win without making deals with other candidates or vote-contractors, unless he is so famous and so beloved that either the vote-contractors endorse him without asking for anything in return or the vote-contractor’s members will disregard their voting instructions and include the candidate on their list regardless . This is what occurred, for example, with Benny Begin in the 2008 Likud primaries, after having been absent from politics for years. To an extent it happened again with him in the 2012 primaries where he received over 20,000 votes and was a little more than two hundred votes shy of winning a secure spot on the Likud list.

The deal system can produce right-wing or left-wing candidates. In general it favors unprincipled candidates because they are willing to do anything – including endorsing candidates whose policies they don’t agree with – in order to get ahead. Over the last few years, however, right-wing ideological interest groups formed within the Likud, mimicking what Moshe Feiglin’s Manhigut Yehudit group did in registering residents of Judea and Samaria to the party and were able to not only support pro-settlement candidates, but judging by the extent of the victory of these candidates – with four of them ranking in the Likud’s top 10 – make deals on their behalf. In this year’s primaries, this effort succeeded in putting ideological candidates on equal footing with their non-ideological counterparts.

Without judging those who work the system, the system as a whole is terrible for democracy. It is the result of a party-list electoral system where the citizen does not choose a representative but a party, and the party chooses the citizens’ representatives in a manner it chooses. This may not be much of a problem for a small party which consists of a small number of people presenting themselves to the public.

In a larger party, however it means a leader, a secretariat or central committee will choose the slate. The public will not be familiar with many of the candidates, and won’t be voting for the slate based on the candidates, but on it’s brand name or because they want to empower the party leader in negotiations for government formation and throughout the term of the Knesset.

In the best case scenario, the party chooses its candidates in an open primary which is relatively easy to manipulate – as I described above. In addition to the deal system, the rules of the primary can also affect the outcome to a great deal. For instance, the date of the primaries, who is eligible to vote, for how many days or until how late at night will voting booths be open, whether there are special spots for new candidates, for candidates from a certain demographic or district, what are the criteria for running on such special spots and where will they fall out on the party list – all these can determine the success or defeat of a candidate.

This system and not lack of human rights protections or attention to the problems of this or that minority sector is the fundamental flaw of Israel’s democracy. Unfortunately, it is one which the public hardly pays any attention to, in part because it has been this way for so long and in part because the multitude of parties provides the illusion of having a real choice.

There are two solutions to fix the system: The first is to adopt a district-based electoral system, at least in part. In a district system, power is more decentralized. Vote-contracting in one district does not directly lead to influence in another. It also means that the main contest is not in the primaries, but in the general elections, where each party fields one candidate, making that candidate accountable to, and a representative of, the voters in his district. Of course he must make alliances with powerful players and interest groups – that’s politics – but at the end of the day, a large pool of voters will decide his fate. This makes him accountable to the people above the party.

The second solution is to have more public involvement in political parties. The more people are registered to parties the harder it is to for vote contractors to manipulate the numbers. If there were 500,000 Likud members instead of 120,000, a vote-contractor with 2000 members would no longer be a kingmaker.

This can be done by easing the registration process – such as by legally mandating lower membership fees (perhaps as a requirement to receive public funding) or creating a central registration agency which will handle registration for all parties so that the registration process can be overseen and simplified.

But whatever internal party policy or law is passed nothing can substitute for a vigilant public that fulfills its civic responsibility: to know the candidates and issues, to think for itself, to take part in political activities and to show up to vote. Only that can break the deal system and create a more democratic, representative and accountable governing system where vote-contractors are a thing of the past.

About the Author: Daniel Tauber is a frequent contributor to various prominent publications, including the Jewish Press, Arutz Sheva, Americanthinker.com, the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. Daniel is also an attorney admitted to practice law in Israel and New York and received his J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. You can follow him on facebook and twitter.


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5 Responses to “Understanding Israel’s ‘Deal System’”

  1. Brent Dov Benson says:

    Here have your editor check out my poem as pro Israel as it comes and hopefully you will print it for the Jewish people to read . than you http://WWW.stljewishlight.com/dov

  2. Elisha Mendelson says:

    this article is really good!

  3. Daniel Tauber continuing his excellent analysis of the Likud primaries. (Note: this was part 4.)
    I agree completely on the ridiculousness of the party membership fees. There should indeed be a central registration center (knowing Israel, that would probably be the Post Office,) at which someone easily, quickly, and painlessly registers for a party. Joining one party should automatically withdraw him/her from another party. And registration should be free. Israel should be ENCOURAGING public participation – not charging money to people who want to effect change democratically.

    As for the election, it would be nice to see the district voting, though there's merit to the party list. To that end, half the Knesset seats should be voted via district vote and half by party list.

  4. Funny to hear Tauber condemn this system. He himself was part of deals with vote contractors.

  5. the solution is to encourage more Likud voters to register and vote in the primary.

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