Latest update: February 15th, 2013
One piece of political news that probably went unnoticed to most, especially among all the coalition-negotiation rumors, was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering cancelling the Likud’s primaries.
An article about this was first published on Jan. 28th, just after the Knesset election on Israel’s Walla news site. Then, over the last few days it sprung up again in Ma’ariv/NRG and Yediot. Another Feb. 10 article in Ma’ariv claims that the Prime Minister intends to have the primaries cancelled before ministers are sworn into the government – that is, potentially in a matter of weeks.
To most people this is just internal party politics, but it’s really not. It directly affects the democratic nature of the State of Israel. In Israel, voters do not choose individual candidates, they choose slates. In effect, there are 120 legislators, but not a single representative. The candidates themselves are chosen via internal party processes – sometimes by a committee – a larger “central committee” or a smaller secretariat or selection committee – sometimes by the chairman, sometimes by the membership in an open primary. Those primaries are the only opportunity a citizen has to vote for an actual legislator, the only time a legislator directly faces a citizen and is held accountable for his record.
Unfortunately, only a few parties hold primaries. Likud and Labor do. This past election cycle, the Jewish Home held primaries, but only half of its list was chosen in the primaries, the rest by the central committee of T’kuma/the National Union. Kadima held primaries for its chairman, but cancelled its primaries for its list because it was expected to only get a maximum of 3 seats (in the end it got two). In total, about 42-3 Members of Knesset were chosen in primaries, meaning about 1/3rd of Knesset Members were chosen by actual people and not by party bosses. Even more unfortunate, is the fact that only a small percentage, something like three percent, of the public is eligible to vote in a party primary, and even less actually do vote.
But still it’s a start. If Israel won’t change over to a district-based electoral system (one representative per district), the only hope for the Members of Knesset being chosen by the people is through the primaries.
The alleged reason for cancelling primaries is, reportedly, that there are those who believe that the Likud’s list was too right-wing and that cost it votes and at the same time, not all party members voted for the party. Or in other words, the “settlers” registered to the party to push candidates like Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon, Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Moshe Feiglin. The problem with that allegation is that there are many factions within the party who behave this way (like unions and members registered by vote contractors); there probably was a higher voting rate among settlers who were registered for the Likud then those who weren’t; and of the 11 seats the Likud-Beytenu list lost from its prior standing the Knesset, seven mandates worth of votes went to the right. Any internal party player, especially the Prime Minister knows all this.
It is true though that the primaries are intensely manipulated – by the various factions/MKs/branch chairmen/vote contractors (vote contracting, as I have explained elsewhere refers to the practice of registering people to the party and then kind of bargaining with their votes for personal gain). This is a huge problem. But this manipulation can only take place because so few people are registered to the party. Many of them are registered by internal players, who can trade on their votes.
If, on the other hand, a million or 500,000 people instead of 120,000 were registered to the Likud, and those people were registered by the party itself and not for any specific internal party player, it would be too hard for any vote contractor or even group, such as a union, to register and control the numbers necessary to manipulate the system. Vote contracting in its current powerful form, would be a thing of the past.
That would require an immense registration effort by the party over several years. That is very possible. In Israel, however, long term solutions, are not the preferred solutions. It’s easier and more seductive to maneuver one’s way to power, which in this case may mean canceling the primaries and concentrate power in the hands of an even smaller group of people.
So will the rumors of cancelling primaries become a reality? In the past, there were rumors that the Prime Minister wanted to introduce a measure creating reserved spots on the list for people chosen by him, as party chairman. One report said the plan was to have one such reserved spot for every ten spots on the list. In the end, this was never proposed to the Central Committee.
In my experience as a Central Committee member, this was not because the Central Committee would not approve. From what I have seen, anything Netanyahu introduces to the Central Committee will be approved overwhelmingly. If Netanyahu had introduced a plan for reserved spots chosen by him, it would have won a majority.
If he had actually intended to do so, it is possible he may have been thwarted by circumstances: Though still a minority, the settler factions won a significant number of seats on the Central Committee. The Central Committee meets in two stages: the first is as the “Convention,” in this capacity it can more easily change the party’s constitution – with a majority. After about three months it reverts to the Central Committee, where a two-thirds majority is required for constitutional amendments. Netanyahu would get that two-thirds majority, and definitely a majority for any measure he proposes, but the first thing that must be done by the Convention is to elect certain positions in the party, including the “President” of the Convention and the “presidential board” (nesiut), which controls what proposals go to the Convention. Danny Danon, at the time a junior MK, and Mickey Eitan were both running for the Presidency. Netanyahu then decided he would as well.
Netanyahu would of course win this election, but anything less than spectacular showing could be embarrassing. Also at the time the vote was to be held, a petition was gathered with enough signatures requiring a secret ballot of Central Committee members. This was initiated by the Manhigut Yehudit faction. At the opening meeting of the Central Committee/Convention, where the Convention President was to be elected, the petition was submitted. When it seemed like it would not be respected, hundreds of Central Committee members began chanting hasha’it (secret), which made headlines. The Likud acquiesced to the request, but now, more than half a year later, and is still unclear how or when this vote will be held. It could even be decided it’s not necessary since the Convention has passed its time limit, but no one knows.
If he did initially want to pass the measure, Netanyahu probably figured it wasn’t worth the effort at that point. Now that elections are over, it can probably be very easily sorted out and if he desires to introduce a measure cancelling primaries he will certainly be able to have it approved. It is something which will be even easier if he claims its a measure against the “settlers” who are planning a Feiglinite coup. But again, who knows? Maybe these reports are feelers being put out by Netanyahu or certain people close to him.
One thing is certain: in the Israeli political system especially, where electoral trust (the citizen’s vote) is placed in parties, the institution of party primaries needs to be expanded, so that the government will be under the supervision of the people from which it derives power and the moral authority to govern. Cancellation of primaries in any sizable party is a step in the wrong direction. Even if this is something that is just being floated to see how people respond, or even if it’s just sensationalist reporting, or people close to the Prime Minister spreading outright lies, it needs to be opposed so that a clear message is sent to those who would attempt to cancel primaries or otherwise hamper democracy. Everything must be done so that representative democracy is expanded and not shrunk in Israel.
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.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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