Two cheers for democracy

Likud primary voters largely opted to reward legislative and ministerial achievement – as they should.

Long line at Likud primary 370 (photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Long line at Likud primary 370
(photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
To all those pundits who have been bemoaning the primary losses of Likud’s “most respectable and presentable ministers,” as one put it, I’d like to pose one simple question: Can anyone point to anything substantive that Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan actually accomplished during all their decades in the Knesset? A signature piece of legislation? An important ministerial policy?
Because offhand, I can’t – and I probably follow politics more closely than most voters. Yet I can easily list some substantive achievements for most of the younger politicians who beat them out on this year’s Likud slate.
Granted, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly values Begin and Meridor’s input at various ministerial forums, but you don’t need to be a minister to offer advice: Prime ministers routinely consult experts from outside the government. Additionally, the conduct of all three men indisputably lends dignity to the Knesset; considering the cringe-inducing behavior of many MKs, that isn’t nothing. But at some point, don’t voters have a right to demand more of their representatives than merely offering advice and avoiding embarrassment?
And in fact, they have. Take, for instance, MK Yariv Levin, whom many pundits like to malign as a foaming-at-the-mouth radical. In reality, Levin, who placed ninth in the primary, is one of the Knesset’s most serious and effective legislators. One of his signature accomplishments of the last term was pushing through a law requiring any cession of sovereign Israeli territory to be approved by either a two-thirds Knesset majority or a referendum. I’ve explained elsewhere why I think this law is vitally important. But the legislative skill and tenacity required to pass it were equally noteworthy.
After all, it’s no great achievement to pass a law of the “let’s throw money at widows/orphans/stray cats” variety; those laws enjoy automatic bipartisan majorities. Pushing through a controversial piece of legislation opposed by successive prime ministers is a very different matter. It took Levin years, and he suffered repeated defeats. But instead of giving up, he did what serious legislators do: patiently recruited supporters, made changes to assuage his colleagues’ concerns, and eventually succeeded. The Knesset has far too few legislators of this caliber.
Indeed, the contrast with Eitan couldn’t be starker. Eitan (to his credit) is one of Likud’s earliest and most articulate critics of both judicial activism and the judicial appointments process. So why do the same leftists who denounce Levin as a dangerous opponent of the Supreme Court now laud Eitan as a court supporter? Because Eitan never did anything but talk, so court supporters have correctly concluded that he’s no threat. Levin, in contrast, has proposed a serious bill to reform the judicial appointments process. I’ve explained previously why (contrary to The Jerusalem Post’s editorialist), I strongly support this bill. More importantly, however, his record shows that he won’t give up just because Netanyahu quashed it once. That makes him a real threat to supporters of the status quo.
But given a choice between an MK who’s just hot air and one who seriously tries to solve problems via legislation, shouldn’t we prefer the latter?   
Nor is Levin alone. For another example, take Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who placed first in the primary: In one short term, he’s pushed through numerous reforms that experts have advocated for years. He persuaded the high school teachers’ union to sign onto a program (launched by his predecessors) that offers higher pay in exchange for increased classroom hours; he boosted funding for higher education after years of cuts; he launched the “centers of excellence” program to lure talented Israeli academics working overseas back home.
It’s too early to tell how successful these moves will be; most have only just begun to be implemented. But one more modest initiative has already borne welcome fruit: Sa’ar succeeded in more than doubling the number of schoolchildren visiting Jerusalem, our capital city and a cradle of Jewish history. If you believe, as I do, that it’s important both for children to see their capital and to learn about their nation’s history, this alone would constitute a signal achievement.
Or take Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who placed fourth in the primary. I confess I’m not unbiased here; I benefit from Katz’s tenure every time I drive to Jerusalem: A badly deteriorating highway has been repaved, and a particularly dangerous stretch where accidents used to occur routinely now has a crash barrier. But it seems I’m not the only one: A recent survey by the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce found that businessmen rated Katz’s ministry as the easiest government agency to do business with, by a substantial margin. The Transportation Ministry scored 7.36 out of 10; the runner-up scored 6.899.
As the survey noted, Katz didn’t inherit this status; his ministry’s first-place finish is due to a sustained effort to reduce red tape that has led it to improve its score in each of the last three quarters. Isn’t that precisely the kind of ministerial competence we ought to be rewarding?
Granted, there are a few unfortunate exceptions to this rosy picture, which is why there are only two cheers in the title of this piece. Miri Regev and Tzachi Hanegbi, for instance, both finished in the top 20 despite being high on my list of people nobody should tolerate in their parliament. The former is a cheap demagogue and serial incompetent (just compare the PR disaster of the Second Lebanon War, when she headed the IDF Spokesman’s Office, to the army’s much more successful PR efforts during the recent Gaza operation). The latter is a corrupt opportunist who jumped from Likud to Kadima in 2006 because it would clearly be the ruling party and has now returned to Likud for the same reason, but still has fans due to his history of providing “jobs for the boys” (ironically, Hanegbi is also beloved of leftist pundits, due to his opportunistic “moderation”).
Overall, however, primary voters opted to reward achievement and punish its absence. Which just goes to show, once again, that voters often have more sense than the pundits who decry them.The writer is a journalist and commentator.