Democracy scores again

Primary voters in Labor and Habayit Hayehudi showed a healthy desire to change unhealthy situations.

Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
When the man whom voters awarded second place in their party’s primary jumps ship for another party a mere week later, it’s hard to deny that voters made a colossal mistake. Yet despite the Amir Peretz debacle, Labor’s primary, like Likud’s, produced welcome results overall. And the same is true of one of the few other parties to hold primaries, Habayit Hayehudi.
Since Labor is projected to win more than twice as many seats this election as it had in the last Knesset, many members of its slate have no parliamentary record to evaluate. Its primary was therefore less about assessing past performance than about reinforcing the important message voters sent by electing Shelly Yacimovich as party leader: They are sick and tired of politicians focusing on diplomatic issues to the exclusion of all else; they want their party to focus on solving Israel’s domestic problems.
Thus two leaders of last year’s social protests won prominent places on the slate despite being newcomers: Stav Shaffir (who placed eighth in the primary) and Itzik Shmuli (11th). But Peace Now leader Yariv Oppenheimer, a veteran Labor activist, placed only 26th – too low to have a realistic shot at entering the Knesset. Labor voters pointedly rejected his single-minded focus on halting settlement construction and negotiating with the Palestinians.
According to Israel’s self-proclaimed “best and brightest,” of course, Oppenheimer’s issues are precisely the ones Israel should be focusing on: That’s why so many of them symbolically joined Meretz’s slate. But Labor voters were wise enough to realize that Israel can no longer afford to keep putting the country’s urgent domestic problems on hold while waiting for a peace that most don’t believe is in the offing.
Ironically, this very desire to give precedence to socioeconomic issues is what produced the Peretz debacle. Though Peretz’s primary success has been widely attributed to the success of Iron Dome during the recent Gaza operation – a tribute to his decision, as defense minister, to push development of the antimissile system despite the defense establishment’s opposition – this explanation founders on one simple fact: Peretz also placed second in Labor’s leadership primary 14 months earlier, when his term as defense minister was still considered an unmitigated disaster. The only way to explain his strong showing in both primaries is his track record of promoting socioeconomic legislation like raising the minimum wage: That’s why the leadership race ended with him and Yacimovich, who has focused relentlessly on socioeconomic issues since entering the Knesset, beating out two other candidates associated more with diplomatic issues.
The voters’ mistake lay in underestimating the size of Peretz’s ego and overestimating his commitment to social issues. It takes a truly monstrous ego to think you have the right to dictate policy to the woman who beat you decisively in the leadership race – especially when polls show her policies doubling or tripling the party’s Knesset strength. And Peretz’s “commitment” to socioeconomic issues now seems like a mere ploy to stand out at a time when his party focused mainly on the peace process: Once Labor’s focus shifted to domestic issues, he promptly declared that the peace process is the real priority after all and jumped ship to Tzipi Livni, whose mantra is “all peace process, all the time.”
The primary also produced some other suboptimal choices: What, for instance, have MKs Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Nachman Shai accomplished in past Knessets that justifies their reelection? But having complained just last week that the Knesset has too few legislators of the caliber of Likud’s Yariv Levin, I’m delighted that Labor voters awarded first place (after Yacimovich) to another of that rare breed: Isaac Herzog.
Due to his focus on diplomatic rather than socioeconomic issues, Herzog actually lost to both Yacimovich and Peretz in the leadership primary. But as a legislator, he can boast some substantial achievements – most notably, pushing through a law granting citizenship and compensation to members of the South Lebanon Army who fled here after Israel quit Lebanon in 2000. That such basic decency to Israel’s longtime allies took four years and suffered repeated defeats is disgraceful. But Herzog’s dogged and ultimately successful persistence shines all the brighter by contrast.
Perhaps the most remarkable primary result, however, was in Habayit Hayehudi. First, voters decisively ousted the veteran leadership in favor of a newcomer – a bold gambit aimed at reversing the party’s steady slide toward oblivion. Naftali Bennett certainly wasn’t the choice of the party elders; they backed MK Zevulun Orlev. But having seen their party’s Knesset strength decline for several elections now, to a mere three seats last time around, primary voters were wise enough to recognize that radical change was needed. And so far, it seems to be working: Polls predict the party will almost quadruple its strength in the upcoming election.
But the truly bold move was voters’ decision to award third place on the slate to a secular woman, Ayelet Shaked. Previously, a secular person couldn’t have dreamed of representing Habayit Hayehudi: After all, it bills itself as a religious party. But voters sent a decisive and welcome message: We’re tired of being a “niche” party reserved for people exactly like ourselves; we’ll welcome anyone who supports our core policies – bolstering Israel’s Jewish identity and opposing territorial concessions. Shaked , and she was welcomed with open arms.
Habayit Hayehudi’s opening to secular Jews, like Labor’s shift in focus from the “peace process” to socioeconomic issues, highlights a broader truth: Ordinary voters are often more willing than the ruling elites to embrace necessary change. Nor should this be surprising: A status quo that doesn’t serve the interests of ordinary people may serve the elites’ interests just fine. That’s precisely why so many of our elites long for the good old days when they didn’t have to worry about what the people thought – as evidenced by last month’s shocking Haaretz editorial urging a return to the days when party leaders could ignore the voters and simply dictate their Knesset slates.
That, however, is precisely why the rest of us should be giving the primary results a hearty round of applause.The writer is a journalist and commentator.