What Likud's Critics Mean When They Say Undemocratic

Electoral reform will not break the power of 'sectoral' parties, it will only drive them to gravitate to and influence the major parties.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

An attempt by some commentators to portray Kadima's entry into the coalition as the ultimate mockery of democracy quickly subsided. It was all too easy to read back to the same journalists the accolades they had bestowed on similar betrayals of voter confidence - provided the betrayals served the left's agenda, as in Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" from Gaza.

Plan B sought to spin the new coalition agreement as Benjamin Netanyahu's panicky reaction to the hostility that he encountered within his own Likud party. Netanyahu had failed to secure the post of the Likud convention's temporary president, to go with his other titles. This rebuff presumably alerted him to the danger posed to Likud by a hostile takeover carried out by men with skullcaps and women with head coverings. By cutting a deal with Kadima, Netanyahu could defer elections until he was able to reassert control over his rebellious party.

This version of the events defies the factual record. First, the deal was conceived and nearly finalized before the Likud conclave. Secondly, the resistance to Netanyahu's proposal to become convention president emanated from the two erstwhile candidates for that same position - MKs Michael Eitan and Danny Danon, representing respectively the Likud's dovish and hawkish wings. Both Eitan and Danon were surprised to learn that the party machine had mistakenly announced in their name that they had withdrawn their candidacies.

If charter members of the commentariat, such as Maariv's Ben Caspit or Israel Radio's Yoav Krakovsky had attacked Netanyahu for making a mockery of intraparty democracy, they would have been on firmer ground, but then, that same commentariat doesn't give a fig for democracy, particularly Likud intraparty democracy.

The Likud's Knesset faction, party institutions and registered voters serve as a brake on a Likud leader who wants to establish his "historical legacy" and display "statesmanship" - media figures' euphemisms for veering sharply to the left. For this reason they have earned the enmity and ridicule of the commentariat. This hostility is compounded by the growing influence of religiously observant voters within the Likud and their attempt to move the party rightward, by virtue of increased voting power in the party primaries or within its institutions. These religious elements are denounced as alien to Likud by commentators such as Israel Radio's political analyst Hanan Kristal and news anchor Aryeh Golan, who quote Jabotinsky the way the devil quotes Scripture.

It is standard democratic practice to try and influence the direction of a party. After Labor's defeat in the 1977 elections, a group of intellectuals from the left formed Club 77 to push Labor leftward - and succeeded all too well. A decade later, Labor had its "octet" of ambitious young Knesset members who similarly sought to push the party leftward. Nobody looked askance at Yossi Beilin, Avrum Burg, Amir Peretz, Haim Ramon and others who wanted to promote an ideology and themselves. However when Tzipi Hotovely, Danon, Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin attempt to do the same in the Likud, they arouse disdain.

The growth of Orthodox membership in the Likud is seen by pundits as being somehow dishonest, because these new members don't actually vote Likud on election day, but rather for parties to the Likud's right. Here is but another example of the commentariat's ability to be selectively scandalized.

When Kadima held its recent primary, TV Channel 1 interviewed voters in the Gaza perimeter kibbutzim who were following the lead of fellow kibbutznik MK Shai Hermesh in backing Shaul Mofaz. When asked if they would support Kadima in the general elections, they jovially answered "not on your life," as they were born-and-bred Labor Party supporters. No tongue-clucking was aimed in their direction. Nor have we heard any questions about the propriety of massive Arab party membership in Kadima and Labor when compared to the actual vote totals for the same parties in the Arab sector. When the Arabs are the second-largest power bloc in Labor, after the kibbutzim, this obviously impacts party policy. But the commentators save their irate reactions for Likud politicians who pander to religious nationalists in their party.

This, however, is only half the story. In the 2009 elections, residents of Judea and Samaria gave more votes to the Likud than to any other party. If the Likud had replicated nationwide its score in Judea and Samaria nationwide, it would be sitting on more than 45 Knesset seats. In the final frenetic days of the campaign, the Likud assiduously courted national-religious voters and Netanyahu was rivaling the JNF in tree-planting ceremonies throughout Judea and Samaria. If national-religious Zionists are "good enough" to vote Likud, they are good enough to influence its policy on issues that for them are existential.

In the perennial discussions about reforming the Israeli political system (a topic that made its way into the coalition agreement), change is justified by the need to break the power of sectoral - a code word for religious - parties. Let us assume that by raising the electoral threshold to 5 percent, we simplify our party system so that it now includes only major- and medium-sized parties. This will not result in getting religious voters to close up shop and remove themselves from politics. They will do like religious voters in other countries with two major parties - the United States, the U.K., Spain, etc.: They will gravitate to the more hospitable party and seek to influence its positions.

Dr. Amiel Ungar writes a monthly column in Haaretz English Edition.



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