Middle Israel: How Likud’s 70,000 primary voters defied their leader

In an unfolding era of one-man parties, Likud’s 70,000 primary voters offered a much needed display of democratic will.

LIKUD ACTIVISTS carry a poster of Miri Regev on Tuesday, the day of the Likud primaries (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
LIKUD ACTIVISTS carry a poster of Miri Regev on Tuesday, the day of the Likud primaries
Fear is the parent of cruelty, said historian James Froude, and Benjamin Netanyahu offered the proof in abundance. 
Like King Saul, whose obsession with usurpers, both real and imagined, led him to slaughter a town of priests, Netanyahu chased away over the years a succession of ministers, confidants, and aides, from Dan Meridor and Moshe Ya’alon to Moshe Kahlon and Ayelet Shaked. 
The planned derailment of former education minister Gideon Sa’ar’s comeback therefore seemed predestined, whether in terms of Netanyahu’s paranoia, or in terms of his party’s refusal to confront it.
Instead, having just ignored their leader’s scheme and voted Sa’ar to the fourth place on their party’s list of Knesset candidates, the Likud’s 70,000 primary voters defied their leader, and in fact challenged the emerging Israeli trend of one-man parties. 
Sa’ar, whom Netanyahu accused last year of conspiring with President Reuven Rivlin to back a parliamentary coup that would crown Sa’ar instead of an indicted Netanyahu, told the Likud’s voters squarely that Netanyahu was libeling him. 
Likud’s members then proved neither stupid enough to believe Netanyahu’s McCarthyism nor so fearful as to satisfy his whim. That independence would be commendable anywhere, but it is altogether admirable in the Likud, which follows its leaders through thick and thin, unlike the Labor Party, which replaces leaders like socks. 
Tuesday’s display of political maturity was not limited to the case of Gideon Sa’ar.
THE OUTGOING Knesset was but several months old when a backbencher named Oren Hazan emerged as a major embarrassment, not only for the ruling party but for the entire Jewish state. 
Allegations that the 36-year-old college dropout supplied prostitutes to the clients of a Bulgarian casino he ran earlier this decade made his party colleague, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, tell Army Radio she felt “ashamed” while Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein banned Hazan from running plenary sessions as deputy speaker. 
Even so, the man was unperturbed, routinely hollering in the plenary, once also calling handicapped lawmaker Ilan Gilon (Meretz) “half a human being” and at another time insulting MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid), who suffers from muscular dystrophy, for letting an Arab lawmaker help her push the voting button. 
There was a time when a guy like Hazan would be dismissed as an anecdote, something like former Italian MP Ilona Staller, a porn star who offered to bring world peace by hosting Saddam Hussein in her bed. But Hazan emerged at a time when the Likud’s rule became hegemonic, and populism became a global trend. 
Seen this way, Hazan was no anecdote; he was the zeitgeist’s extension, if not its embodiment. 
Well, on Tuesday Oren Hazan’s day in the sun reach its abrupt end, as the same Likudniks who overruled Netanyahu also sidelined the vulgarian racist who bullied his way to a seat in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee at the expense of the experienced, principled and civil Bennie Begin.
The Likud’s members also dismissed Yaron Mazuz, the deputy minister whose campaign’s highlight was a video clip in which he hosted and hailed Elor Azaria, the sergeant who had shot in the head a neutralized terrorist. 
No, the Likud has not changed its spots. Xenophobic Culture Minister Miri Regev was reelected, Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad was barred from running in what seems like a biblical vendetta, and hacks such as the leader of the Airport Authority Union and the former secretary of Israel Air Industries union’s leader made it in. 
Even so, the Likud’s primaries shed its parliamentary faction’s embarrassments and produced a respectable and workable list of candidates that indeed represents its membership’s democratic will. 
It is a feat that will put on the defensive most of the Likud’s opponents, challenging Israel’s increasingly common and alarming phenomenon of one-man parties.
ISRAELI PARTIES emerged as ideological collectives. While no party had anything like primary elections until Labor held one in 1992, all had some kind of party center where hundreds of activists debated ideological dilemmas and also produced their parties’ lists of Knesset candidates. 
This is how Labor, Herut, the National Religious Party, the General Zionists and practically all other major parties operated last century. Even the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael was not a one-man show, as its lawmakers were (and still are) selected by a panel of rabbis. 
In the old system, party centers routinely challenged party leaders, even ones as dominant as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. 
The autocracy that is steadily eroding this legacy arrived haphazardly, with the rise of Shas, which theoretically answered to a rabbinical council like Agudat Yisrael’s, but effectively had Rabbi Ovadia Yosef handpick every lawmaker and minister, a system that in 1999 produced 17 lawmakers who were technically elected but effectively appointed. 
The trend then proceeded from the ultra-Orthodox to the ultra-secular, with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu placing in 2009 in the Knesset 15 lawmakers who were all his nominations rather than any collective’s. 
The following election the same method was deployed in the political Center, as Yair Lapid’s 19 lawmakers were his personal picks, a sharp departure from his father’s formula when the 15 seats his Shinui faction won the previous decade were approved by a party council of more than 120 members. The younger Lapid’s method was also deployed by Tzipi Livni, who handpicked the six lawmakers her faction won. 
The Center-Left was then joined by the Center-Right’s Kulanu, with which Moshe Kahlon inserted into the Knesset 10 lawmakers that he picked. 
Now, as the trend proceeds to Benny Gantz’s new party, the next Knesset is poised to have seven personalized parties, including Naftali Bennett’s New Right, Orly Levy-Abecassis’s Gesher, and Shas, where Yosef’s autocracy is now ruled by Arye Deri. 
Between them, the personalized parties’ lawmakers are forecast to populate nearly half the next Knesset. It is a creeping perversion of democracy, downgrading the lawmaker from a community’s elected representative to a political boss’s subservient appointee. 
Good thing someone just bucked the trend.