Civil Fights: Three cheers for democracy

Likud's primary proved Israelis will reject opportunism and corruption and demand accountability.

Yaalon bibi 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yaalon bibi 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The media is appalled by Likud's Knesset slate. So, evidently, is party chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. Yet any good democrat ought to applaud the outcome of last week's primary - because it showed that, given a chance to vote for individual candidates, Israelis will overwhelmingly reject opportunism and corruption and demand accountability. Opportunism: Blatant opportunism has contributed greatly to a growing disenchantment with politics. The spectacle of people hopping from party to party based solely on which seems likely to win the next election, with no regard to their own or the party's stated views, has convinced many Israelis that politicians care about nothing but being in power. Three candidates in Likud's primary embodied this phenomenon: Assaf Hefetz, Uzi Dayan and Miri Regev. None has ever publicly expressed a view that would indicate any affinity with Likud's platform; indeed, as Haaretz noted, Hefetz and Dayan viewed Likud as "a dirty word" until its electoral prospects suddenly made it desirable. But Likud members resoundingly rejected such opportunism, relegating all three to the bottom of the slate. In contrast, another newcomer once identified with the Left fared well: Moshe Ya'alon (No. 8). But in recent years, Ya'alon has consistently and publicly objected to disengagement and cast doubt on the near-term prospects of peace with the Palestinians - views that Likud members generally share. Hence far from being an opportunist, his positions have genuinely changed in a way that makes Likud his natural home. And therefore, he was welcomed. Accountability (1): Rarely have voters' views on an issue been as clear as Likud members' views on disengagement. Not only was the party elected in 2003 by campaigning against unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but members rejected the idea again, by a 60-40 majority, in a May 2004 referendum. Yet in the Orwellian world of Israeli politics, those who honored the party's platform and the referendum results were branded "rebels" by the media, while those who flouted their electorate's will were lauded. And Likud's central committee, which chose the party's 2006 Knesset slate, sided with the media rather than the membership. Disengagement supporters featured prominently on the list, while many opponents were relegated to the bottom. This, more than anything else, devastated many rightists' faith in democracy - because if politicians can flout voters' explicit directives with impunity, then voters have no influence at all. So why vote? Likud members, however, struck a blow for accountability in last week's primary. Of nine candidates who served in the previous Knesset but not this one, six out of seven disengagement opponents made the slate; both pullout supporters failed. That sent a clear and important message: Voters will reward MKs who honor their will and punish those who do not. Voters reinforced this message by punishing several sitting MKs who supported disengagement. Silvan Shalom was ousted from the heir-apparent's slot (No. 2); he is now seventh, behind five disengagement opponents. Limor Livnat, for years Likud's unquestioned leading lady, fell below disengagement opponent Lea Nass. Michael Eitan dropped from No. 6 to No. 16. The one disengagement opponent who failed to make the 42-person list was Yehiel Hazan, who disgraced himself with a criminal conviction for double voting. That, too, was a triumph for accountability. Corruption was duly punished. Accountability (2): Primary voters also rewarded effective MKs, while punishing poor performers. Shalom, for instance, was lackluster as both foreign affairs and finance minister, while Livnat, though she tried, failed to effect reforms as education minister. This contributed to their downgrading. Instead, voters awarded the top five slots (after Netanyahu) to three MKs who have never been ministers and two who have held only minor portfolios, but who have all distinguished themselves as parliamentarians. Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan, Reuven Rivlin and Moshe Kahlon are all extremely effective legislators. In addition, Rivlin enjoyed wide respect as Knesset speaker, while Sa'ar has been a superb faction chairman. Former MK Bennie Begin was also a well-regarded parliamentarian. Whether they would be effective ministers is anybody's guess. But in the voters' view, their strong performances to date have earned them the right to try. And that is as it should be, if we want talented ministers rather than hacks. Diversity: Finally, voters made it clear that despite their desire for accountability, they see Likud as a big-tent party with room for diverse views - a fact concertedly concealed by the media. The Jerusalem Post, for instance, labeled Dan Meridor (No. 17) the slate's only "centrist," ignoring the six disengagement supporters above him. BUT THE deeper flaw in the media's view is the implication that anyone who opposed disengagement is by definition a right-wing fanatic. By that standard, Yossi Beilin is also a right-wing fanatic: He wrote and spoke tirelessly against disengagement (though ultimately deciding that he "could not vote against" uprooting settlements), for the exact same reason that many rightists did - fear that it would strengthen Palestinian extremists and encourage terror. Given Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections and the huge upsurge in rocket attacks from Gaza, most Israelis now concur. Disengagement opponents were simply the first to recognize a bad idea when they saw it. If that is the media's definition of "right-wing," rightists will doubtless accept the compliment. But to assume that people who opposed a destructive peace initiative would therefore necessarily oppose a constructive one is a leap of illogic not justified by the data. By rejecting opportunism and corruption while promoting accountability, talent and a big-tent philosophy, Likud voters have strengthened Israeli democracy as a whole. They have also bolstered the claim that direct election of MKs would similarly further these trends. And the credit belongs entirely to Netanyahu, who single-handedly forced democratic primaries on a reluctant party establishment when he assumed the chairmanship three years ago. Unfortunately, with his active encouragement, party institutions have since nullified some of these achievements: In a disgraceful move of questionable legality, they reordered the slate's reserved slots three days after the primary to move the opportunists up and disengagement opponents down, thereby effectively overruling the voters. One can only regret that instead of taking pride in his own genuine democratic achievement, Netanyahu has opted to denigrate and undermine it.