Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud faction meeting, December 3, 2014.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Regardless of the results of the elections on Tuesday and the coalition negotiations that will follow, it is clear that the Likud, as a national political party, is largely dysfunctional.
In Israel’s democratic process, citizens cast their votes for party lists, and not for local candidates. As a result, although the party leader is important, a strong list helps and a weak list carries costs, as in the case of Likud.
In the Likud’s list of Knesset candidates, very few of the candidates, including ministers who served in key positions in recent years, have a significant following or the ability to appeal to the wider Israeli electorate, particularly younger voters. The successful candidates were the ones who had the backing and resources to collect ballots from vested interest groups and power brokers.
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In the “exception that proves the rule,” Netanyahu’s best move in an otherwise disastrous campaign was to bring back Benny Begin, who is still respected as a serious political figure, but was booted out three years ago by political manipulators. However, the addition of Begin was far too little to restore the missing gravitas.
The decline of the Likud is neither exceptional nor unexpected.
As often happens in democracies, after a number of years in power, political parties become complacent and stagnant. Cynical career politicians gain power and start to take constituents for granted. Instead of focusing on resolving complex problems, such as the lack of affordable housing, the income gap, education, health care and other socio-economic issues, they focus on competing for influence and lining their own pockets. In parallel, they bully and push out strong candidates and serious legislators whose elbows are not as sharp.
The process takes place regardless of political party or ideology – it is as true for the Right as it is for the Left; in the US, UK, France, Canada and Israel. Likud’s situation now is reminiscent of Britain toward the end of the Thatcher years, of the US Democratic Party after eight years of the Clinton presidency, and now the Republicans regarding presidential elections; of Canada’s Liberals after a long period of dominance, and of the Labor Party in Israel until recently.
Parties that have fallen from power are able to stage a comeback only after they have replaced the jaded leaders and created new and more open mechanisms necessary for governance. With few exceptions, this process can only take place after a painful electoral defeat, and in many cases, it takes more than one failure.
Likud’s campaign showed all the symptoms of decline – the offensive ads and videos were produced by people who are out of touch with Israeli social and political realities.
And Sara Netanyahu’s tour of the prime minister’s residence, with the holes in the rug, was ill-advised, to understate the case. The second tier of party leaders that remained and are taken seriously, such as Ze’ev Elkin and Yuli Edelstein, were largely invisible.
As the leader of this broken party, Netanyahu shares a major portion of the responsibility and blame. Although it is true that he was pre-occupied with weighty external issues – the Iranian nuclear program, the summer war triggered by Hamas attacks, and US President Barack Obama’s ongoing hostility – Netanyahu was also unwilling to risk a full-scale confrontation with the power brokers and wheeler- dealers.
The signs of the coming disaster were clear but ignored.
Two of the more serious and successful ministers from the previous coalition – Gideon Sa’ar and Moshe Kahlon – withdrew. Kahlon set up his own party and is taking critical votes from Likud, while Sa’ar is waiting out this campaign, reportedly preparing to seek the leadership after the Netanyahu era. If this is the case, and if he is successful, Sa’ar will need a much wider leadership circle, and together, they will have to clean house and start again.
Perhaps Netanyahu will scrape through with enough seats to form a coalition again. If he does, he will gain a short period during which, in addition to dealing with Iran and other regional threats, he will have a final chance to dismantle most of the party structure and start again