‘Likud Is the Big Winner in Israeli Municipal Elections.”
That headline from The New York Times followed the municipal elections in 1989, in which Likud candidates won mayoral races in most of Israel’s large cities, replacing Labor incumbents.
Reading a headline like that today begs the question “Are the party’s best days behind it?” The last time the hawkish Likud won big in national elections, Israel was in the midst of an intifada initiated after a Labor prime minister offered to concede 97 percent of disputed territory to Yasser Arafat. The Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon was leading Israel to beat the second intifada and won 38 Knesset seats.
Since then, the Likud has managed to stay on top, but barely. In 2008, the sitting Kadima prime minister was indicted and had just resigned, yet the Likud still failed to win a plurality of Knesset seats and was beaten out by Kadima 28-27. But as the right-of-center parties garnered more support overall than their left-of-center counterparts, the Likud was nevertheless selected to lead the government.
In the most recent elections, after a last-minute deal and a nonexistent-turned-negative campaign, the Likud lost seven Knesset seats. But joined to its ally Yisrael Beitenu and faced with no prime ministerial contender or united bloc from the left, the Likud’s leadership remained secure.
So the Likud remains on top, but gone are the big wins and the days when it could draw a decisive amount of public support on election day. A great divide seems to have been created between the party and those that once supported it, one that last-minute maneuvers cannot bridge.
We believe that this divide is due in large part to what is known as shitat ha’dealim – the deal-making system.
SINCE BECOMING politically active in the Likud, we have learned through experience that most members of Knesset and party insiders count and trade party members like baseball cards. While the Likud has the largest membership base of all Israeli political parties – today approximately 120,000 – its membership comprises only 1.5% of the public. This is because ordinary citizens do not actively register as party members, and the party does not pursue them. In addition, membership registration, as well as maintenance of party membership, can be a maddening and time-consuming process.
The sad result is that most, if not a sizable majority, we would estimate, of Likud members did not sign up independently.
Instead, someone or some group signed up these members – often friends, neighbors, family or co-workers – for the purpose of building up support within the party or, in other words, voting as instructed in internal elections. Those who do the registering – the “vote contractors” – can then trade the votes of these members for support for their favored candidates (or for themselves if they are MKs or candidates) for specific benefits, to curry general favor with powerful politicians or, in rare cases, to advance a policy agenda. With large swaths of the membership controlled by vote-contractors or interest groups, for MKs to obtain secure spots on the party’s Knesset list, they have no choice but to make deals with each other and with the vote-contractors.
This is the deal-making system.
Under this system, a candidate’s positions, platforms and public record are less important than how many Likud members the candidate has registered and what deals he can cut. In elections for internal party institutions – which can be used to manipulate or even cancel the party primaries – the reign of the system is even more supreme.
In elections to the Likud’s Central Committee and branch councils, which are rarely held, voters arrive at the ballot box and are handed pre-marked ballots (with dozens, even more than 100 candidates, depending on the district, pre-marked). Voters are to deposit the pre-marked ballots without even having to look at the candidates.
This practice is encouraged by the party itself, which publicizes where such ballots can be printed before the elections.
Many of the candidates are placed on the pre-market ballot by their political allies or masters, who are often their immediate family members. This provides vote-contractors with blocs on the Central Committee, which they can use for a variety of purposes. More powerful party institutions like the Secretariat or the Committee on the Constitution are elected by these blocs in the Central Committee. Thus political power within the party is not drawn from the people but from manipulation of the party’s internal electoral system – from the registration of members to the election of Knesset members.
In the aftermath of the last Likud primaries, in which several Likud notables – Benny Begin, Mickey Eitan and Dan Meridor – did not obtain secure spots on the party’s Knesset list, frustration with the current system led even the prime minister, who previously led the Likud Convention to relinquish its power to selected the Knesset list, to suggest that primaries should be canceled.
In this spirit, a number of proposed amendments to the Likud Constitution have been submitted to the party’s Committee on the Constitution that would cancel primaries and have the Central Committee choose the party’s Knesset list or allow the party chairman or the Central Committee to choose a number of spots on the list.
This would be a giant step backwards. It would exacerbate the problem by concentrating power even further in the hands of the few and making the party even more detached from the public.
Instead, we propose expanding the party’s internal democracy by making the party more open to the public and making more of its institutions elected by the membership, while at the same time restricting the amount of power that can be accumulated by individuals or internal factions.
To this end, we have proposed a number of amendments to the party’s constitution which would, if approved, ease the membership registration process; create due process requirements; make party information available; make the Secretariat, as well as branch chairmen, directly elected; and reduce the number of slots a slate can compete for in internal elections from two-thirds of those available in a given district to one-third or a maximum of 20. And instead of canceling primaries, we propose making the election of all Likud candidates for public office in primaries almost impossible to cancel.
Perhaps the most unique proposal, however, is a mandatory code of ethics for party members that would ban, among other things, trading the votes of fellow Likud members, recommending multiple lists, using pre-marked ballots or using party institutions to advance favored candidates.
Adopting this code of ethics would be an important step in demonstrating to the public that the party rejects shitat ha’dealim and is committed to the highest ethical standards and, above all, to representing the public. At the time of the writing of this article, the Committee on the Constitution is still considering these proposals and the many others that have been submitted. Those that the committee approves will go before the Likud’s Central Committee (possibly as the “Convention,” depending on the date) for a vote.
We hope that both the Committee on the Constitution and the Central Committee will reject measures that might increase their own power and cost the party more public support and will instead seize the opportunity to return the Likud to its former glory.