Cancel the Primaries

To preserve Israel's democracy, the primary system must be abolished, and new ways of electing candidates for the Knesset and party leaderships must be devised.

Even if it is still unknown at this point whether Ehud Olmert committed any crime by allegedly receiving money from businessman Morris Talansky, one thing is clear: the need for candidates in Israeli party primaries to raise massive amounts of money requires them to seek connections to the very wealthy, and this casts a heavy shadow on their public integrity. To preserve Israel's democracy, the primary system must be abolished, and new ways of electing candidates for the Knesset and party leaderships must be devised.

Anyone running today for the leadership of one of Israel's large parties must engage in fund-raising on a vast scale. Those who wish to be included among the candidates for the Knesset also need a great deal of money. The primary system requires courting hundreds, if not thousands of people, as demonstrated by MKs who spend considerable time and money attending bar mitzvah celebrations of people they have no interest in, except for the possibility of recruiting them when the time comes. The fact that all of Israel's recent prime ministers were investigated on fund-raising matters - and that some of them only extricated themselves by the skin of their teeth - points to the depth of the problem.

The supposedly democratic primary system is what creates the link between money and government. There is also a specific Israeli aspect: For various reasons, it is easier to raise large sums of money outside the country. So candidates must court Jewish tycoons abroad; the names of the figures behind the various would-be leaders are well known. The result is that the money of Jews who are not Israeli citizens influences the outcome of elections in Israel.

It is clear, for example, that when Olmert ran for mayor of Jerusalem against Teddy Kollek, he received financial support from American Jews who wanted to see a right-winger in the mayor's office. Absurdly, then, the money of people who are not citizens and do not have the right to vote may decide elections in Israel. Nothing has a more corrupting effect on democracy.

Most Israelis are unaware that the primary system is not used in democratic countries other than the United States. Some observers believe that the only alternative to primaries is to have party candidates appointed by an organizing committee. But this is not the case.

How do most democratic countries choose their candidates? Some are elected at party branches, some in districts, some at the party convention. Others are picked by women's organizations, youth organizations and trade unions associated with the party, and party leaderships get a chance to name a few candidates. This creates checks and balances, and, most importantly, it diminishes the need to raise money to run a primary campaign.

A similar system should be instituted here. That way, the power to decide will once again be given to party members, not to wealthy contributors; Israel's citizens will regain their sovereign right to choose their own candidates; and foreign Jewish money will no longer shape the choices that determine the country's leadership, policies and fate.