Analysis: The ties that bind

The candidates know who these bosses are and the size of the voting blocs they control.

tzahi hanegbi 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tzahi hanegbi 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Not all of Kadima's members were thrilled by MK Tzahi Hanegbi's high-profile defection from Likud to Kadima in December 2005, a day after police recommended that charges be brought against him for appointing dozens of Likud members to jobs in the Environment Ministry. He was placed in the lowish ninth spot on the party's Knesset list and in the election ad presenting Kadima's leadership, his face was shown for a split-second before being pushed to the edge of the frame. The campaign's advisers prepared a standard answer for whenever a Kadima candidate was badgered about Hanegbi's inclusion. "This is exactly the reason we left the Likud and set up Kadima," they dutifully recited, "so that ministers will no longer be beholden to the central committee members." It was a winning case. Over the years, as scandal followed investigation, the levels of graft and bribery revealed in the Likud central committee made the 3,000-strong body's name synonymous with public sector corruption. The self-styled people's party that had swept to power in 1977, promising an alternative to the old-style Mapai patronage system, steadily grew its own bloated kleptocracy, whose lack of shame astounded the remaining members of former prime minister Menachem Begin's old guard. The central committee, which elected the party's leader and Knesset candidates, attracted small-time businessmen and regional party bosses who realized that a minister in need of the votes they controlled would bend the rules to award them contracts and to find government jobs for their sons and daughters. In the 1990s, the Likud finally went to a primary system, and the central committee fought back. But at the 1997 central committee convention, the "Building 28" group, led behind the scenes by Avigdor Lieberman, then the director-general of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office, pushed through a vote returning the power to choose the Knesset list to the central committee. After they broke from the mother party, Sharon's followers in Kadima used the committee's negative image to devastate the Likud's standing. In a desperate move to shore up his electoral prospects, Netanyahu, a month before the March 2006 elections, managed to win an emergency vote in the committee once again transferring the right to select the Knesset candidates to the entire party membership. For once the self-serving members realized the extent of the damage they had caused to their party, and went along with Netanyahu. But it was too late to save the Likud from obliteration at the ballot box. Today, though, even after the foundation of Kadima and the return to the primary system in the Likud, central committee shenanigans continue to haunt senior politicians in both parties. The list of alleged political favors done by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for Likud members when he was industry and trade minister that was reported on Wednesday night by Channel 10's Raviv Drucker is only the latest in a series of revelations that has already touched past and present ministers such as Avraham Hirchson, Ya'akov Edri, Yisrael Katz and Dan Naveh. And it seems almost certain we haven't heard the last of what went on in the merry old days of the Likud central committee. But are such practices now history? That would be an extremely na ve assumption. The same political hacks still wield influence; many of them have transferred to Kadima while the rest remain in the Likud, waiting for a return to power. Nor is there any shortage of likeminded counterparts in Labor, as illustrated by similar suspicions aired just last week against National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. All three parties might be committed to holding primaries before the next elections, but that only means a change in tactics. Instead of controlling small groups of central committee members, behind-the-scenes party bosses have already signed up hundreds - and in some cases, as with the Likud's haredi group in Jerusalem, even thousands - of rank and file members. These consist of extended family members, employees, and in some cases people who have been paid to join up. They might not even be party supporters; all that's expected of them is to vote as instructed in the primaries. The candidates know who these bosses are and the size of the voting blocs they control. They also know their price: Labor Chairman Amir Peretz's decision to appoint Ghaleb Majadle had little to do with his qualifications to run the Science, Culture and Sport Ministry and everything to do with the tens of thousands of Israeli Arab party members who will be voting in the Labor leadership race on May 28. The vote offers another opportunity for corruption in the heavy funding needed to run a campaign targeted at 100,000 party members; it's a golden opportunity for businessmen to buy influence through political donations. A quarter of a century ago, before the time of central committees and primaries, a small group of party leaders, and sometimes only the chairman himself, would decide on the candidates lists, and there was ostensibly less corruption. But the results of party autocracy aren't always so successful either, as Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman's disastrous selection this week of MK Estherina Tartman as the next tourism minister goes to show. Only a year ago the founders of Kadima were talking of a new, cleaner style of government. Netanyahu's followers, for their part, claimed they had rid the Likud of corruption. And Peretz boasted of leading the only real democratic party. Right now it looks like politics as usual.