For Zion's Sake: Keep the Likud democratic

The Likud Party may soon become more closed, corrupt and overall less democratic, and with it, Israel’s political system as a whole.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his victory speech at Likud headquarters (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his victory speech at Likud headquarters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Likud is not only Israel’s leading and largest party, it is Israel’s most democratic party.
Its approximately 100,000 members, reflecting a cross-section of Israeli society, vote in primary elections for its Knesset list, party chairman (and candidate for prime minister), its central committee and local branch councils.
The other parties that allow their general membership to elect their Knesset list, the Labor and Bayit Yehudi parties, have approximately 50,000 and 77,000 members respectively. Labor’s general membership chose 18 of 24 of its (or the “Zionist Union’s”) current members of Knesset, while Bayit Yehudi chose six of its eight Knesset members.
By contrast, of the Likud’s 30 sitting MKs, the general membership chose 28.
The prime minister’s ability to choose the other two candidates was put to a referendum by Likud members.
But the Likud Party may soon become more closed, corrupt and overall less democratic, and with it, Israel’s political system as a whole.
That depends on whether, in a vote currently scheduled for Thursday, the Central Committee takes for itself the power it once had to elect the Likud’s Knesset list, as proposed by newly elected MK David Amsalem, himself a powerful member of the Central Committee who controls the Likud’s Jerusalem branch and a substantial bloc of votes in the Central Committee.
This would be terrible for the Likud and the country, of course.
The unofficial deal-making system which holds sway in the primaries, which is derogatorily referred to by the press and criticized by Likud MKs and members alike, would be exacerbated. Instead of directing voting blocs in primaries, vote contractors and factions in the party would be able to direct their voting blocs in the Central Committee, which is elected far less often than Likud MKs. This would give the powerful Central Committee members and factions practically total control over the composition of the list and all but eliminate the costs of a getout- the-vote effort in primaries.
Though primary elections would become less costly for Knesset candidates, other costs, including to the public, would rise. Just last Thursday, recently retired culture and sport minister Limor Livnat explained in an interview with Lady Globes the relief she felt and no longer being beholden to Central Committee members who would demand political favors and jobs in return for their support.
Livnat referred specifically to an incident when she was education minister and refused to override a school administrator’s decision to hold back a student, who was the son of a Central Committee member, from advancing to the next grade level due to failing grades.
“The Central Committee member yelled, ‘For this I made you a minister? I will oppose you in the primaries.’ He indeed did so, and it caused me great damage,” Livnat said.
The character of the Likud’s general membership, which would still elect the Central Committee, would take a turn for the worse. Ordinary citizens who identify with the party and seek to have their fair say in its and the country’s direction would be discouraged from registering and paying membership dues. MKs would also have less incentive to recruit such members to the party, since their votes would hardly matter in Knesset primaries and their membership would be almost impossible to maintain for the many years in between Central Committee elections.
Central Committee members, on the other hand, would have great incentive to register cronies in preparation for the irregularly held Central Committee elections, which the public would have little knowledge of before the deadline to register to vote in such elections.
Ordinary and especially young voters would thus leave and stay away from the party, while those who have signed up as a favor to a vote-contractor would multiply, detaching the party from its base and making harder to maintain and grow that base.
The prime minister opposed the seizing of power by the Central Committee at a Likud faction meeting on May 27 with reasoned arguments about the political benefits of primaries. In February 2012, when the idea for the Central Committee to choose the list was raised, Netanyahu replied harshly. If such a thing was approved, Netanyahu said, he would leave the party and form a new Likud.
But following surveys of Central Committee members and meetings with branch chairs – who often control voting blocs in the Central Committee, Netanyahu softened his approach, announcing last Thursday night that he was willing to consider a compromise in order to avoid a scenario in which the entire Knesset list is chosen by the Central Committee.
Such a compromise would likely mean arrangement where Central Committee members would have direct control over the district spots on the party list, which number approximately 10, whereas the national spots, where incumbents must compete, would remain chosen by the general membership.
This too would represent a significant closing of the Likud’s primary elections.
Amsalem, however, has said he will accept no compromise. Even after the prime minister’s statement, Amsalem began a robocalling campaign arguing for the Central Committee to choose the Knesset list.
This may be because a compromise proposal does not offer Amsalem much.
If the Central Committee choses the entire list, Amsalem, who wields significant power in the Central Committee, will not only possess greater power over the Likud’s MKs, but his own reelection campaign will be secure and effortless.
But giving the Central Committee control over the districts would not necessarily secure his reelection, since traditionally only new candidates are permitted to run for district spots. As of now, Amsalem would have to face off against other incumbents in a much more competitive race than the district spot where he was elected.
The compromise would also not represent an increase in the amount of power Central Committee members have over the list, since powerful Central Committee members often control large voting blocs in their districts.
Hopefully, the prime minister’s apparent willingness to compromise coupled with Amsalam’s stubbornness and disrespect for the prime minister will ultimately convince Central Committee members to stick with Netanyahu and vote down Amsalem’s proposal.
The writer is a Likud Central Committee member, director of Likud Anglos, and an attorney.