Confessions of an Israeli Politician

Pursue reform against an interest group? What are you, nuts? That’s a recipe for career suicide.

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The Knesset plenum.
The Knesset plenum.Credit: Emil Salman

Following my column on politicians enslaved to interest groups, a certain Knesset member decided to share secrets with us. These secrets are perfectly well known to anybody in key positions at the big public organizations, and explain why they serve the interest groups at the expense of the unorganized public, which is left unrepresented in Israeli democracy. Here is his text, barely edited:

Most of the public doesn’t understand how politics works and how support rises and falls. Take a party with 100,000 members. Ostensibly, the 100,000 can affect the party’s list for Knesset, but the primaries are settled by votes in the margins. The voting rate anticipated in primaries is 40% to 60%. The number of votes naturally depends on the number of voters and of candidates, but a result of 40% of the voters is high by any criteria. Thus 20,000 votes can assure a high ranking in the party list. In that situation, if a few thousand voters switch candidates, it can decisively affect the choice.

The union at the Israel Airports Authority, like most of the big unions in the public and private sectors – at the monopolies, the municipalities, the defense industries, the financial institutions and the telecom and insurance companies – read the map and hasten to place 1,000 members in each party primary election where there’s rustling at the top. For them, it’s easy to place that many people because they have the organizational resources and mainly a powerful interest.

They’re fighting to keep their livelihood. Therefore, the union members place workers and their families. Since they understand the depth of their interest, on voting day they’ll show up in larger numbers than the people coming for ideological purposes. Beyond that, because the interest connecting the group members is so clearly defined and stark, they will be very disciplined in their voting and obey the union leader, who decides who gets rewarded and on whom to take vengeance.

A politician’s decision to take on a monopoly, a robber industry or a union that arranged cushy terms for itself at the public’s expense looks good on paper, but it’s suicidal. The politician has to decide whether pursuing a reform that will probably never happen is worth sacrificing a career. Worse, the moment you decide to do the right thing and go to war against the independent tax militias, a big powerful union or influential guild, you’ll find enough righteous men in your party and other parties taking up arms for the union. The most likely outcome is that you’ll be falling on your sword while they’ll be cutting coupons for supporting the union, all the way to the voting booth.

That’s the moment of discovering what had been obvious to everybody serving in politics a long time: there’s hardly one single professional decision made during a politician’s term that can move 5% of the support from profit to loss. Politicians fight for every mention in the press (which is also often influenced by the interest groups) in order to broaden their support in the party, and with one decision to support the union, without humiliating oneself in the press or groveling to it – you’re assured of a strong support base.

The union leaders, however, don’t give support for free. Usually they’ll share it among four groups.

First of all, the two less-important groups:

1.  Most politicians can get some support (say 500 votes) just to keep them grateful, while assuring they keep behaving properly and aspire to get more support in the next round.

2. Inexperienced, naive politicians won’t get any support. Sometimes they don’t even know enough to seek it. This group consists mostly of the “loonies,” who come and go with each Knesset term and aren’t worth much investment. They won’t manage to gain a majority for change in the Knesset or government anyway because they haven’t learned how the system works yet.

Now for the two more relevant groups:

3. Politicians who have proved their loyalty come the crunch. The members of this group fought (or will fight) madly to abolish reforms and structural changes designed for the greater good. They can be relied upon to lead the battle to protect the group’s interests, because they’re ‘great guys’ who understand what company value is. These will get full support (at least the entire 1,000 but in practice, thousands more).

4. Ones who had proved undisciplined and deserve punishment. Not only won’t they get one single vote: they can lose thousands of votes through deals.

It’s worth elaborating on groups 3 and 4 because that’s where the people with the potential for change coexist with those who have great expertise in maintaining the status-quo. Politicians who “value the companies” will go against the unions’ friendship and can make deals while relying on that 1,000 votes. For instance, they can offer another candidate who isn’t even on the unions’ list to get him the union’s support (1,000 votes worth) in exchange for 1,000 votes that he got from somewhere else. Based on simple rules that we all learned playing Monopoly, the candidate has leveraged his loyalty to the union into 2,000 votes. This deal can be repeated a number of times, since the union is big and keeps its word.

The deals can go in the other direction, too. Let’s say a Knesset member decides he wants to tackle distorted arrangements some monopoly had achieved. He risks not only that specific union’s 1,000 votes, but the union can make deals designed to take him out. Thus any decision to battle a union’s interests could cost him thousands of precious votes. How many people would risk their job and career to serve some amorphous consumer who will apparently never know or show gratitude?

Another system of deals that intensifies these effects, and never gets covered in the press, is the unofficial collaboration between the unions. They usually discuss mainly extreme cases: whom to support and whom to ruin. A candidate getting full support can rest on his laurels. On primary day he’ll get 7,000 to 10,000 votes without raising a finger for the public.  All he did was quietly stifle reforms for the general public, under the radar and he becomes a star in the primary and a meteor in Israeli politics.

Thus, practically unknown candidates suddenly surprise. In interviews these new politicians will talk about their “desire to serve the public” while in practice their political activity is to maintain the status quo – prevent reforms in the most rotten places in the country.

This way some colorless unknown or even corrupt person may gain thousands of votes without having done a thing for the public. On the contrary, he sucked value from the public on behalf of an interest group. But some other Knesset member who was active on the Finance Committee, who studied the issues and tried to do the best job he could, will get relegated to the bottom of the list because he’s considered “loony, unconnected, unfit for politics.

The institutional system of incentives described here is so strong that other criteria such as age, personal background, abilities, knowledge, economic understanding - and mainly the job done in the Knesset or government - barely matter.

Almost everyone, in his own way, toes the line of the commanders in the field, who have the real power. The decent Knesset members complain to their cronies about the situation and vow that one day (which never comes), when they have enough political power, they’ll bring change.

The mediocre ones don’t even invest in thinking about it, but persuade themselves that this is how the system works and they need to take care of themselves because nobody else will, and everybody does it. The not-so-decent ones will party and become excellent players within the system.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter much of a given politician hails from the social-protest and joined the Labor Party, or if it’s a new chairman elected to a party, or a relatively young Knesset member, or if it’s a seasoned experienced head of a Knesset committee. All digest the interests, and from their perspective it’s irrational to fight the sicknesses at the Israel Airports Authority or at any other sick body in the public or private sector.

But I have to end on an optimistic note: when change comes from somewhere else outside the political system, and builds a critical mass of supporters, then the tune will change and the graduates of the protest movement in the Knesset can adopt slogans anew and tell us with passion, that the Israelis want change.

Until then, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a champion to arise from within the political system.

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