The folks in the bar at Kikar Dizengoff on a recent rainy evening hadn't come to warm up with a shot of whiskey; there were plenty of places nearby for that. They were there to get together with their new colleagues. Everyone who entered the watering hole, even if just to escape the stormy Tel Aviv night, was given a name sticker that read, "Likudnik."
From the birth of Israel, many attempts to spark a revolution have risen - only to fall. The Israeli Black Panthers made a Knesset run but undershot the electoral threshold. Shinui ("change" ) didn't actually change a thing. Even the Gil Pensioners Party magically disappeared after winning seven Knesset seats.
Last summer saw a new attempt at change, by taking to the streets. The outcome was the tepid Trajtenberg Committee report and a $1.5 billion boost to the defense budget.
Now something different is being tried. Plato once said something to the effect of "Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber." Young social activists, having decided to stop being so smart, are plunging into the heart of the ruling party - Likud - in order to change it from within. They don't identify with the Likud platform, they emphasize; it's a matter of middle-class representation in the Knesset.
"The new Likudniks" is what these freshly signed-up members seeking to conquer the party call themselves. We decided to sign up with Likud and tag along with them, to see what's going on from up close.
The 2% non-solution
Already last summer there were calls to "hold your nose" and become party members so as to influence the Knesset directly through each party's primary elections. They determine who is on the list of candidates and the position on the list of each candidate: the higher any given candidate is, the better their chance of getting in.
In the last election Kadima's 28 MKs were chosen by 28,000 party members; 48,000 people determined Likud's 27 MKs from Likud and 36,000 Labor members selected the party's 13 legislators.
The bottom line, according to the www.mitpakdim.co.il website, is that 116,000 Israelis - just 2% of eligible voters - chose 68 of the Knesset's 120 members. This means 98% of the voters had no influence in choosing the Knesset's membership.
"You were told everyone's equal in a democracy? It isn't true. Members of major parties have 34 times the influence of the average person who just votes in the general election," says the website. "There are Knesset members who garnered fewer votes in the primaries than the number of friends you have on Facebook."
The disgust of some of the new Likudniks for politics in general and Likud in particular was well-earned by the party. Born in reaction to disgust at corruption in Mapai and the Labor Alignment, Likud has itself become a symbol of political corruption. Founded on the liberal-humanist principles of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who fiercely opposed the expulsion of Arabs from pre-State Israel, Likud is now based on out-of-control crony capitalism and is the standard-bearer of extreme nationalism.
The humble times of Jabotinsky's days have been replaced with eye-popping wealth, of the sort that enables some MKs to employ no less than five parliamentary assistants and to waste tens of thousands of shekels a month on "staying in touch with the public" - which has never been less in touch. Humanism was replaced by the extreme nationalism of "Two banks has the Jordan, this is ours and that as well." This is the part of its heritage to which the party devoutly clings.
At the same time, an increasing number of people have come to see Likud as the only option for ruling Israel. Public opinion polls have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu winning the next election comfortably. Therefore, say political neophytes, joining Likud may be the only way to exert influence.
Moshe Feiglin can probably be called the first new Likudnik. When Feiglin joined at the dawn of the millennium and ran for the party leadership, many considered him a curiosity, a crackpot from the extreme right of the political map who was trying to drag Likud in that direction. But it worked: Feiglin brought thousands of settlers into the party, strengthened his influence in the party and led it into the radical right.
This approach is now being followed by Gil Kidron, a Tel Aviv man who writes website content for a living and who is trying to recruit leftists to Likud. He decided to imitate Feiglin, but from the left, by bolstering more moderate Likud figures such as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin - who, ironically, has now become identified with Likud's left flank after years of anchoring the party's extreme right.
The "Likud Central Committee" meeting at the Tel Aviv bar is nothing like the genuine article, not even in its choice of refreshments: Beer and tapas replace the traditional hot dogs and bourekas.
Each new member or fencesitter was given a turn with a megaphone to speak their mind. There were speakers from the left and the right, but they all had something in common: All were secular liberals, fed up with a government and politicians who don't deliver the goods. Most were active participants in last summer's protests, and they all want to get rid of the party's extremists, such as MKs Yariv Levin, Danny Danon and Zeev Elkin.
One activist estimated that in the six weeks since the campaign began between 1,000 and 2,000 people had joined Likud. "We need at least 20,000 new members, because that's the only way we'll have some clout," he said. "Did you know that just 2,000 people voted for [Likud MK] Ofir Akunis?"
We went to the Knesset to listen to what Likud MKs from across the party's political spectrum had to say about the newcomers.
Danon: Unrankled by the new rank and file
It could be complacence or mere politiness, but the Likud MKs we spoke to did not seem concerned about their party's new, left-leaning members. Some even sounded pleased with the development. "I welcome all those who join Likud," Danon said. Ostensibly, he should be nervous, but he conscientiously treats us, the new cadre, with courtesy.
Danon is actually happy with the changes. "Regardless of your ideological views, it's good to see young people in the movement, because if you're here I can convince you and others. When I visit local party headquarters I see a crowd that's too old. I'm happy people from outside Likud understand that Likud is going to stay in power, and to influence the country they need to go with Likud. With all the criticism directed at the prime minister, apparently people grasp that Likud is a leading share that will continue leading in the next elections, and that's a good sign," Danon said.
Just don't say the "L" word in his presence. "If you say 'leftists' you'll set me off," Danon said. "The place for leftists isn't in Likud. Obviously they can come, nobody will stop them; they can vote and have a say. But will they find a home for themselves and their ideology? I think it would be a mistake. I suggest they join Kadima, or if they're really left-wing then Meretz," Danon said.
If the campaign succeeds and thousands of political moderates join Likud, Danon and his colleagues on party's right flank will be hurt while more centrists MKs will benefit. Danon betrays no sign of concern: He knows his party and feels his position is too secure to be challenged by a few leftists from Tel Aviv.
"I wouldn't want to see thousands of leftists joining Likud, but I think it's a gimmick," Danon said. "I haven't noticed thousands of new members, I estimate their number to be in the dozens or a few hundred. There is a debate these days over whether the real Likud is Dan Meridor or Danny Danon. According to the media, Meridor better represents the real Likud. My feeling is that I represent Likud more than Meridor, in terms of promoting the values of Likud voters. What do they expect? What do they want in return? Whoever voted Likud-Netanyahu wanted us to change the rules, to bring about balance in the media and in the Supreme Court, and to strengthen the settlement of Judea and Samaria - and that's not Meridor. Perhaps Kadima voters see Meridor as a positive symbol, but how will they vote?
"Feiglin had a very hard time persuading people to vote Likud after the disengagement" from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Danon continued. "The question is whether you'll succeed, assuming the direction I'm pushing toward will dominate and we'll continue to pass laws and block peace moves - or suicide moves, as I call them. Let's just say your new members will need to come and vote Likud, with Danny Danon and others whose messages they dislike," Danon said.
Range of views yes, infinite no
Danon's friend and partner in legislating, MK Yariv Levin, also maintains a veneer of high-mindedness about the party's new members. "I expect two basic things from the new members: one, that they vote Likud in the elections; and two, that they identify with the movement's fundamental principles," Levin said. "In Likud, as in any major party, there is a broad range of opinions, but not an infinite range."
Like Danon, Levin said he did not feel threatened by the development, even though he'll be near the top of the "hit list" of the party's new, moderate flank if the membership drive succeeds.
"I've always taken a consistent line with positions I believe in," Levin said. "I'm capping, these days, 21 years of activity in the movement since I was first elected to the Likud Central Committee, and I continue to do what I believe in. If it turns out that what I believe in doesn't represent the majority of the movement then I'll accept the electorate's decision and go home," Levin said.
MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen also refused to jerk away the welcome mat; he called on all the social protest activists to join Likud. He also made a point of meeting with some of the figures behind the membership drive, describing the pow-wows afterward as "excellent."
"It adds another hue to Likud," Shama-Hacohen said. "I didn't notice any left-wing extremists among them. We mainly discussed economic, not political issues. Likud is a broad movement, nationalist and liberal, with a spectrum of opinions that encompasses MK Tzipi Hotovely on the right and Meridor on the left; and most Israelis citizens can move about within this spectrum."
Necessary move or loss of direction?
We left the Knesset and went to talk to experts in the academic world. Their opinions about leftist activists joining Likud were split.
Yaron Ezrahi, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, suggested that these young people were looking for ways to change the government and the way the political establishment operates.
"The good news is that the fact they're searching for original ways to change the political system through the party system, and not through extraparliamentary means, indicates a certain degree of vitality Israel's democratic system," Ezrahi said.
"For a large group of young democratic-liberals who are against the settlements and support the social protest movement, their numerical weight within Likud could be much more significant than if, all together, they were to contribute a small number of Knesset seats to a leftist party," he said.
"This step proves the feeling that the political system is like a pressure cooker needing a vent," Ezrahi continued. "These young people feel Likud is currently a type of political web comprised of three large blocs: the religious-Zionist and nationalist bloc, the ultra-Orthodox bloc and the Russian bloc. This obviously doesn't mean all Russians [immigrants] or settlers, but these big blocs allow the leadership to act the way it does against an entire public. Israelis don't understand that nowhere in democratic theory is it written that the majority is sovereign: The nation is sovereign, the majority along with the minority," Ezrahi said.
Prof. Gideon Rahat of the Hebrew University's political science department and the Israel Democracy Institute, doesn't like the development "Parties are intended to represent the people who vote for them, not others," he said. "Voting for one party while belonging to another may be kosher, but it's not ethical. It distorts the party and it distorts the system. It distorts the entire game."
On the other hand, Rahat added, "Obviously the game is already distorted. After all, it's a reaction to Feiglin, a reaction to the mass registration in Likud by settlers ... The new members ranks aren't trying to change the system, they are exploiting a terrible system to do what they feel like. They are exploiting a loophole in the name of ideology and good intentions, but it is still distorted," Rahat said.
The Social Guard
In the Knesset we also met activists of a different kind, who joined no parties but are also trying to steer the course of government from within. These are the members of the Social Guard, and they've set themselves the goal of attending Knesset committee sessions and keeping their fingers on the legislative pulse.
Since the Knesset's winter session opened the Social Guard volunteers have been attending committee meetings, monitoring the proceedings and learning how Israel's laws and regulations are decided. Anyone can volunteer with the organization. Every Thursday the following week's committee schedules are posted on its website and volunteers can sign up for the ones they want to attend. The organization's staff then collects the names and submits them to the Knesset for approval. The volunteer arrives at the meeting, listens, takes notes and posts a report on the site. Yonatan Peled attended an extraordinary session of the Knesset Finance Committee that convened on December 19 to discuss the impending layoffs at the Pri Hagalil food processing facility in Hatzor Haglilit. Labor MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told the attendees that three years ago, when he was minister of industry, trade and labor, he had promised a government aid package to the plant's owner but ministry officials failed to take care of the matter.
In his report, Peled wrote that Ben-Eliezer had apparently tried to skirt regulations pertaining to the conditions for the funds; when ministry officials ignored his instructions he had no way to ensure they would be carried out. Peled concluded that promises by government officials are not always met.
Shahar Somekh sat in on a session of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee that discussed the Prevention of Infiltration Law. She later reported that most of the MKs came and went, not bothering to listen to the pros and cons and returning later just to vote. "The time has come to look reality in the eye," he wrote. "Laws passed by the Knesset are the outcome of behind-the-scenes deals and handshakes, not the active presence by MKs in meetings and consideration of all the arguments raised."
"The prevailing attitude of the protest is 'let's slash and burn,' but I think working within the system provides more possibilities to fix things," said Social Guard member Estee Segal. "Looking at the summer protest, it's possible to say nothing changed and that the situation is even worse, so it apparently failed. But there is a deep significance in the change of public discourse. There is a lot of public interest now in the processes changing our lives, and much more understanding. Large-scale organizing is going on all the time. Things are building under the surface. People tend to look for immediate results but there are processes that require time and patience," Segal said.
She learned the hard way that in this game it's more important to be smart, not right - to do your homework and set the relevant characters straight.
"I chose to sit in on the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, and this is indeed something I can get my teeth into," Segal continued. "At the last meeting someone sat next to me, with a man named Hillel I recognized from previous meetings. A brief conversation with her revealed that she's with the Population, Immigration and Border Crossings Authority. The session was about establishing detention facilities for illegals, at a cost of NIS 280 million.
"I couldn't hold back and hissed that the decision requires a vote. Hillel said it was only a cabinet resolution. I replied that it needs a Knesset vote and he responded that it's up to the government to decide and execute. I blew my cool and suggested that maybe the Knesset should just be disbanded.
"He didn't answer and the hearing began. MK Nitzan Horowitz invited the prime minister's representative to speak, and it turned out to be the person I had been talking with. I wanted to cut my tongue off: I learned that sometimes it's better to shut up, grin and bear it, and learn; to be like a fly on the wall to become smarter. There's no point in getting angry," Segal said.
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