For Zion's Sake: The Likud’s shrinking democracy

Though the Likud’s elections are far from ideal, the solution is not to bypass or jettison them, but to correct the deficiencies.

The Likud’s shrinking democracy
Whether you like them or not, the Likud’s Knesset members have arguably more of a claim to represent the public than the legislators of any other party, as Likud MKs must contend in primaries for the votes of approximately 100,000 diverse members of the Likud.
These primaries, along with the Likud’s other numerous internal elections, have made the Likud the most democratic political party in Israel since 2006, when then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu convinced the party’s Central Committee to allow the party membership to choose the party’s MKs.
But the Likud’s democratic status is in danger, with three different internal elections having been canceled in less than a year.
Most prominent among the canceled elections was the election of the party chairman and candidate for prime minister, which was scheduled to be held last week. That was not the initially scheduled date of the election. The Likud Constitution requires the election of a party chairman to be held either six months before the scheduled Knesset election (currently set for 2019), or soon after a date is set for early elections, which do not appear on the horizon.
In December, however, the prime minister requested the Central Committee schedule the election practically immediately, less than a year after the previous Knesset election.
The request came amid speculation that former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, who had ranked first in two consecutive Likud Knesset primary contests (the party chairman is elected separately), and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat might challenge Netanyahu for the leadership of the party.
It was also rumored that a self-destructive and impractical proposal made in November 2013 to require a two-term incumbent to earn a 60 percent of the vote to win a third term would be revived.
Netanyahu’s explanation for seeking to advance primaries did not provide any specific explanation – including the ill-advised term-limit proposal. Netanyahu only made the general argument that electing a chairman early “will project stability and strength in the coalition under the Likud’s leadership.” This was enough for the Central Committee to approve the proposal overwhelmingly with 65% voting in favor.
With the election unexpected and to be held in less than two months, it was not surprising that no challengers emerged.
Barkat had only joined the Likud in mid-December and was in any case precluded from competing by the two-year mandatory waiting period before competing in internal party elections.
Sa’ar, who has sniped at Netanyahu on Facebook every now and then since ostensibly taking a break from politics, responded to the Central Committee vote by saying he would not participate in “a puppet show.”
With no competition the election was canceled, leaving Netanyahu as party chairman for potentially another seven years without a single vote cast.
In April of last year, another Likud election was similarly canceled after an even shorter election schedule: the election of the Israeli delegates to the World Likud Convention, which elects the chairman of World Likud.
That position can be used to bolster a person or faction’s standing in the party and has been hotly contested in the past.
This election was announced on Thursday, April 16, and was scheduled for only 11 days later. The deadline to submit candidacy was only three days (or one business day) later.
There was also little notice for the election.
A notice was placed on a page on the Likud’s website (not the homepage) and letters sent out by mail were rendered meaningless by the lightning schedule. (The letter I received arrived only after the election was canceled).
Unsurprisingly, virtually all the candidates belonged to one of three factions, which apparently had sufficient advance notice of the election to be able to compose slates of candidates by the deadline. Once the deadline passed, the factions divided the spots available by dropping candidates in order to reach the exact number of delegates to be elected and voila, elections were canceled on April 21, five days after they were announced.
MOST IMPORTANT among the Likud’s canceled internal elections are the elections for the district candidates on the Likud’s Knesset list – 10 candidates typically placed somewhere between the 20th and 35th spots on the list. These spots represent the primary, if not only practical pathway in the Likud for new blood to enter the Knesset.
This cancellation was the mainly the result of the efforts of Likud MK David Amsalem, who, despite the prime minister’s public warnings against canceling primary elections by the general membership, proposed doing just that and having the Central Committee elect all the Likud’s MKs.
Amsalem garnered considerable support among Central Committee members, many of whom feel they do not receive sufficient attention from Likud MKs and who alleged that the Likud’s primary system allowed candidates who are not “true Likudniks” (e.g., former MK Moshe Feiglin) to take advantage by registering party members who do not necessarily vote Likud in the general elections. (Feiglin left the party after failing to do just that long before the vote and many, if not all, of the major party players recruit party members regardless of how they actually vote in the general election).
By the time the prime minister intervened, he was forced to adopt a compromise position whereby the Central Committee would choose the district candidates only.
With Netanyahu’s backing, the compromise proposal was overwhelmingly approved.
It might be argued that this is not the cancellation of an election, but a mere transferring of the vote from one body to another, but such a technical rationalization misses the point.
About one third of the Likud’s potential MKs will now be chosen by a small body controlled by party “bosses” instead of the much larger body of members that more truly reflects the majority of Israelis who want to see the Likud’s candidate in the Prime Minister’s Office. Corruption and poor MKs are likely to follow.
AS SEEN, no single player was behind each of the election cancellations. Rather, in each case, various internal party players or factions sought to increase or secure their own power. This may be natural behavior for politicians, but in a democratic country, the moral and cultural importance of elections as a method of choosing representatives should provide a check on such behavior.
But in each of these cases, preserving the democratic method did not seem to merit an afterthought.
In fact it may be viewed as a liability. In support of his proposal to advance the election for party chairman, Netanyahu noted that the Likud’s democratic nature put it at a disadvantage vis-a-vis its non-democratic, but internally stable, competitors.
But as chaotic and costly as internal elections are, when the competition is fair and the body choosing the representatives is wide, the democratic process can yield a stronger party and better representatives: politicians who are concerned with advancing policies desired by the public and who are not reliant on a small group of backers alone; fighters who do not sit back and ride the coat tails of their party or its leader.
Though the Likud’s elections are far from ideal, the solution is not to bypass or jettison them, but to correct the deficiencies. The prime minister should invest in reforming the party’s electoral system and recruiting more members to make the party membership more reflective of the public that supports the Likud’s leadership. That may not seem as important as the diplomatic and security challenges Israel faces, but in the long run, it will yield the leaders who can best deal with those challenges and those yet to come.
The writer is director of Likud Anglos, a Likud Central Committee member and an attorney.