Matters were looking a bit gloomy for the Likud on December 15, 2002, as the national election campaign for the 16th Knesset began to heat up. That day, the police launched an investigation into allegations that there had been attempts to bribe politicians during the Central Committee vote for the Likud's slate of candidates to the national elections.
It was only one week since the vote, but there had already been too many reports in the media about corruption and vote-selling during the campaign. On December 11, one of the losing candidates, Nehama Ronen, complained that four Central Committee members had approached her and offered to round up votes on her behalf at the price of NIS 1,000 per head.
Akiva Nof, another losing candidate, complained to the police that Central Committee member Haim Naim had offered him votes during a private conversation on November 20. "I have 45 votes that are absolutely guaranteed," Nof later quoted him as saying. "Eleven of them are relatives. But you know how it is, you'll have to pay for them."
Another complaint was lodged by Nahman Shachter, who lost the race for the Likud's southern district representative to Omri Sharon.
Police also called in a group of Central Committee members headed by Yitzhak Koifman, a haredi from Jerusalem, who had allegedly offered 70 votes to candidates willing to pay the price.
The "vote contractors" were only one of the problems that suddenly began to disturb the sleep of party leaders who had until then been certain of a runaway victory. There were also reports that known criminals such as Shlomi Oz, Mussa Alperon and members of the Gavrieli family had been active in the Likud membership drive and the elections to the Central Committee.
Then came reports that MK Naomi Blumenthal had paid out of her own pocket to put up 15 influential Central Committee members at the plush City Tower hotel on the night before the election.
For a moment, it looked like the Likud might be in serious trouble as bad news kept pouring in and media reports kept piling up. Many people concluded that the highly influential political body which had selected the candidates of the country's leading party was unworthy of its power.
In an attempt to head off the mounting scandal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced on January 16, 2002, that he was appointing then justice minister Meir Sheetrit to prepare a bill ordering the larger parties to elect their Knesset candidates by a vote of all party members. It was as if Sharon was telling the nation it was too late to do anything about the corruption in the Central Committee at this point, but he would make sure it never happened again.
TUMULTUOUS MONTHS and years have gone by since then and many events, some of them historic, have occurred in the meantime. But the country is headed towards new elections, and new elections require a new slate of Knesset candidates. And despite the promise the prime minister made almost three years ago, we are likely to hear the same allegations and read the same reports of election corruption in the Likud Central Committee in the days ahead. For not only has the party quietly buried the legislative initiative, it has also gone out of its way to make sure no one resurrects it by seeing to it that if anyone else initiates a similar bill, Likud MKs will not dare vote for it.
Although Sheetrit worked diligently and completed the bill calling for primaries in all the major parties, it never reached the cabinet for endorsement, let alone the Knesset for approval.
When it became obvious that the government had decided to drop the matter, Labor MKs Haim Ramon and Ophir Paz-Pines submitted their own primary bills to the plenum. On Oct. 13, 2004, both were soundly defeated with the backing of Sharon, then industry and trade minister Ehud Olmert, then finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu and most of the Likud ministers and MKs.
Before the vote was held, Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) told the plenum that "even if people think there is a better system [than the Central Committee election] it is the voluntary organization, that is, the political parties, which determine their own system in a democratic society. It is unthinkable that the legislature would tell the big parties what to do. After all, who is the legislature? It is the representatives of United Torah Judaism or Shas or other parties which do not hold primaries, and tell other parties that they must hold them. Therefore, this bill is absurd."
But the defeat of the legislation was not enough for the members of the Likud Central Committee, who were apparently not convinced that the threat to their status and power had been permanently put to rest. On January 6, 2005, the Central Committee, in its capacity as the Likud Convention, passed a number of amendments to the party constitution, including one stating that any Likud MK who voted for a bill calling for internal party primaries would be barred from standing for re-election.
By then, Central Committee leaders, and many of the rank-and-file, felt they had been burned by many of the MKs whom they regarded as their emissaries in the Knesset. Their bitterness was directed primarily at Sharon, whom they accused of misleading the party by campaigning against withdrawing from Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and then turning around and doing the opposite. They were especially infuriated when he ignored Central Committee decisions to block him from carrying out the disengagement.
Resolution number 13 of the Likud Convention, passed on January 6, 2005, was the Central Committee's response to Sharon's alleged insults. It was meant to impose iron discipline on the party's MKs on a matter which they regarded as a life-and-death issue for them, because open primaries would sound the death-knell of its power and influence.
Aside from the amendment's practical implications for the internal political process in the Likud, it also had profound constitutional implications. For it raised questions about the essence of parliamentary representation, above all, the question of whom MKs owed their fundamental allegiance to - their party or the nation at large. That issue had already been raised in the Supreme Court, which ruled that members of parliament owe their first allegiance to the nation.
Eitan Haberman, the Likud's legal adviser, advised the Central Committee to drop the amendment. "The amendment contradicts fundamental judicial and democratic principles and it is doubtful whether they will withstand judicial scrutiny," he wrote Likud director-general Arik Brami a day before the vote.
On the day of the vote, Haberman read out a letter from the Movement for Quality Government (MQG), which also opposed the amendment. The movement charged that "the attempt of the Central Committee to restrict the autonomous thinking of the MKsâ€¦is unacceptable and illegalâ€¦.Its inclusion in the Likud constitution also violates a number of criminal prohibitions including those prohibiting extortion using threats, grand larceny, bribery and so on. This amendment will turn the Likud into a party that serves as a sanctuary for illegal activity."
Despite these warnings, the amendment passed by an overwhelming majority of 1,203 to 46. The decision went almost unnoticed by the public, perhaps because it was buried in a large potpourri of other constitutional amendments that the Convention voted for en bloc. In fact, 10 months after the event, several Likud activists were unaware that the amendment had actually been approved.
Three months after the vote, the MQG petitioned the High Court of Justice against the amendment. The MQG has regarded legislation of primaries and the weakening of party central committees as one of the most important planks in its battle against corruption in the public sphere.
The head of the MQG's legal department, Attorney Barak Calev, told The Jerusalem Post that the Convention's amendment had nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with power and its abuse. "This is a corrupt amendment involving influence-peddling which the Central Committee members are imposing on the MKS because of the personal benefits they currently enjoy. Through this amendment, they are trying to perpetuate a situation which the attorney-general himself recently warned about, to the effect that in the past few years, Central Committee members are exploiting their positions for personal gain. They are now trying to preserve this situation. Belonging to the Central Committee is no longer a matter of ideology; it has become a profession."
The state has also joined forces with the MQG on this matter. In its response to the petition, the state's representative, Attorney Dina Zilber, wrote that the amendment was "unworthy" and dangerous. The amendment sought to reduce the Knesset's prerogatives and "not canceling it would be tantamount to agreeing with this erosion, which right now is limited to one concrete issue, but who knows where it will go from here because of the danger of the 'slippery slope'?"
THE HIGH Court of Justice is due to hold another hearing on the MQG petition on November 30. The Likud has released Haberman, who continues to disagree with the amendment, from representing the party on this matter.
At the same time, even victims of Central Committee corruption do not necessarily oppose the Likud amendment. Akiva Nof told the Post that the source of corruption in the Likud was not "little pawns" like Naim, who tried to bribe him. It was the party leaders who fostered an atmosphere of corruption that trickled down to the smaller fry.
"The entire structure of the [Central Committee vote for the slate of candidates] was rife with corruption," said Nof. "It started with the sum of money, NIS 10,000, that candidates had to pay in order to run. Then it cost another NIS 2,500 to rent a table at the convention center for your flyers and posters, and money to print them. So, you needed NIS 15,000 just to start with. That isn't exactly democratic.
"Someone had an interest in this circus," Nof continued. "Everyone had to print flyers and they competed with each other over the quality of the color and the kind of paper. Little newspapers appeared that were really advertisements for candidates. There were all kinds of parties and events featuring a band, a quarter of a chicken and burekas."
Nof was also critical of the election system, which, he charged, lends itself to vote-selling and deals. Because of the system, many of the roughly 145 candidates who ran for election in 2002 were not competing against each other. For example, there were candidates running for local districts. There were also guaranteed "niche" slots in the slate for special groups including women, the young guard, new immigrants and Druse or Arabs. The district and niche candidates did not compete with any candidate who was not running from the same district or did not belong to the same niche. Therefore, they needed far fewer votes to win than those on the national list, and could make deals with candidates with whom they did not compete to "share" supporters.
In spite of all of these problems, Nof is opposed to primaries, which he believes will be even more costly and will not solve the deeper problems of corruption allegedly fostered by the party leadership. For example, he said, if a candidate had to appeal to 250,000 voters instead of 3,000, it would cost him much more to campaign.
He also said he was not sure whether the amendment to force MKs to vote against primaries was a bad idea at this particular time. Normally, he said, he would oppose it because he was against limiting MKs. "But in the existing situation, when an MK makes a 180-degree switch [a reference to Sharon's disengagement plan and the MKs and ministers who supported it,] there is something positive in the idea."
Despite his own experience in 2002 - and despite his acknowledgment that there are more than a few bad apples in the Central Committee - Nof believes that it is a more reliable institution for preserving the ideals of classical Herut, the ideological molder of the current Likud, than in the membership at large.
"New elements have entered the party who do not come from within the movement," he said. "When members of the Juarish family (a prominent Israeli Arab family from Ramle, some of whose members have been involved in serious crime) enter the Likud, I can no longer trust the overall membership."
Nehama Ronen, on the other hand, has publicly advocated holding primaries since the day she first complained about vote-selling.
"The current system of choosing Knesset candidates is the source of all evil," she told the Post. "The Central Committee does not represent the values of the Likud. Some of its members are contaminated with interests that border on the criminal."
Ronen estimated that of the 3,000 members of the Central Committee during the election campaign for the Likud Knesset slate in 2002, only about 60-80 had offered to sell votes. Still, if each of them controlled, say, 40 voters, it added up to a large number of mercenary votes, especially for the district and niche slots.
Even if the High Court of Justice decides in favor of the MQG petition, it is unlikely that the Likud will change its election system before the upcoming elections. Calev believes that if the threat of being unable to represent the Likud in the next election were lifted, many Likud MKs would vote for a primaries bill. Even if he is right, it is too late for that now, with elections looming on the horizon.
But Ronen believes Calev is wrong.
"Only after the current system becomes so corrupt that the Likud loses power because of it, will the party change its election system," she predicted.