Netanyahu's Primary Problems, and the Perils of Democracy

The Likud party primaries later this month hold many pitfalls for Benjamin Netanyahu, most notably populist declarations by hawkish candidates and the absence of mizrahi faces.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Only three of the parties running in these elections are selecting their Knesset lists in party-wide primaries where every member has an equal vote. The first was Habayit Hayehudi (the venerable National Religious Party in its new guise) on Tuesday, and in two weeks Likud and Labor will both hold their primaries. The rest of the parties either hold elections in smaller forums or the lists are decided by the party leader or by a small committee or, in Shas and United Torah Judaism, the rabbis get together to divide up the slots between their flunkies.

Click here for Anshel Pfeffer's 2013 election blog

The advantages of full-fledged primaries are clear. A much larger constituency gets a chance to participate in the process and there is an opportunity to select a fresh and representative list that combines experienced political operators with attractive new faces. The downside is also evident: Primary campaigns cost money, which opens them to shady dealings and corruption. When the membership is large, and most of the voters are not personally acquainted with the candidates, inordinate power is wielded by "vote-contractors" – big machers who hand out lists of "approved" candidates to hundreds of members they have signed up to the party (sometimes paying their membership dues, which is illegal.) The process is equally unsavory for the party leaders - who are also elected by the same members – because it forces them to deal with a group of ambitious candidates who have their own agendas.

Each leader has his dream list of obedient allies who are also potential vote-winners, appealing both to wide swaths of voters and vital core constituencies. He or she tries to sway the vote through public endorsements and behind-the-scenes lobbying of vote-contractors and, at the end of the day, each leader is forced to manage with whatever the primaries have thrown up.

Over the next few days we will explain the primary problems facing each of the leaders: Netanyahu's struggle to shape the Likud list, Shelly Yacimovich's showdown with the Labor's trade union chiefs and the challenge facing Habayit Hayehudi's newly-elected leader, Naftali Bennett. Today it's Bibi's turn.

Netanyahu's Right Headache

Likud, which will be by far the largest party in the next Knesset, will have whatever list its members vote for diluted by the hand-picked candidates of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. Benjamin Netanyahu urgently needs moderate candidates to balance the ultra-right slate to keep voters from defecting to the centrist parties and on the other hand, he needs some Mizrahi faces to balance the increasingly Ashkenazi image of his party. Likud is the traditional party of the Sephardi working-class but its upper echelon is predominantly Ashkenazi, especially after the departure of popular Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Right now Netanyahu's chances do not look good. The party membership over recent years has increasingly been dominated by the hawkish right to which candidates are pandering, as Haaretz's Roy Arad found at a hustingshe attended earlier this week in Bnei Brak, where the prospective MKs competed in promising bloodcurdling vengeance on Hamas. Netanyahu is putting all his weight behind moderate candidates, especially Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor and Tzachi Hanegbi, one of the more prominent survivors from the Kadima shipwreck. Other moderates, such as ministers Michael Eitan and Avi Dichter, seem destined to remain outside the next Knesset.

On the other front, Netanyahu is not faring any better. The only prominent Mizrahi minister expected to clinch a spot in Likud's top-ten is his old rival Silvan Shalom, who made it clear last week in an interview with Zvi Zrahiya, that he has no plans of relinquishing his role as the internal opposition. In an attempt to bolster his Mizrahi credentials, Netanyahu recruited Iraqi-born firebrand economist Shlomo Maoz, and pushed him as his candidate for the Tel Aviv area slot on the Knesset list. But local Likud bosses already had their preferred man for the slot and Maoz is threatening to pull out rather than be humiliated – Netanyahu will have to expend a great deal of political capital to ensure his victory. He needs Maoz not only to brighten up his pale-faced slate. He is a media-savvy, popular commentator on finance and if selected, he will become the party's main economic spokesman, replacing the unpopular Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casting his vote in the Likud primaries, in Jerusalem, on January 31, 2012.Credit: Emil Salman

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