Despondent Over Left's Lack of Influence, Israeli Farmers Join Netanyahu's Party

As lobbying government officials hasn't been enough, hundreds have joined governing Likud in recent weeks over issues like water and foreign workers

File photo: Migrant workers work in a field in central Israel, August 22, 2018.
Ilan Assayag

Hundreds of farmers aligned with the Labor Party have joined Likud party institutions in recent months, realizing that this is the only way they can get bigger water allocations, larger quotas for employing foreign workers, and disband a government agricultural board whose role is no longer clear.

The phenomenon points to the growing power of party politics and the recognition that lobbying government officials isn’t enough to advance agendas. Creating interest groups inside Likud, which has been Israel’s dominant political party for decades, is at least as important.

“I belong to a farming family that has been growing crops in Israel for several generations. We’re a family of leftist Mapainiks, but we came to understand that the only people who will represent us farmers are party dealmakers,” said G., a farmer north of Tel Aviv who spoke anonymously. “We lost a lot of fights because we had no one representing us in the Knesset and no lobby — it was humiliating.”

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Mapai dominated Israeli politics in the early years of the state and is one of the parties that eventually merged to become the Labor Party in 1968. But Labor hasn’t led a government since 2002.

G. has been working for months to establish an inside line to Likud by recruiting what he says is now more than 500 farmers into the party. Next month a major Likud event for Labor farmers is scheduled in the Galilee Arab town of Kafr Manda, hosted by the Zaidan family, who are long-time party activists. Others are planned in Yesod Hama’aleh and Kfar Aviv.

G. said he started the process by meeting with Likud legislator Sharren Haskel and recruited an initial cadre of 70 to 80 farmers from families he knew personally. “Then I extended the circle – tractor operators, fertilizer dealers, people from farther away,” G. said. “We’ve come to many kibbutzim and moshavim where they’ve despaired of the left.”

Haskel understood the group’s potential power to serve as a base for her inside the party. She has actively campaigned since she entered politics against the Plant Production and Marketing Board and even won a promise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during this year’s election campaign to close it.

Last week she submitted legislation to rescind the law creating the board. It now awaits the formation of the next government and a new ministerial legislative committee to ensure it wins coalition backing. In the previous Knesset, Haskel tried to advance this effort several times, to no avail.

Apart from the Plant Board, the farmers want to slash the red tape and taxes involved in hiring foreign workers. They also want measures protecting them from seeing their water allocations reduced in the future.

“The prime minister has already said that a change in the status of the Plant Board is a done deal,” Haskel told TheMarker. “In the last Knesset we tried to advance the bill that would have ended a situation in which a farmer pays a fee for each foreign worker he employs. Farming is in critical condition when it comes to the labor shortage, and the government tries to make money for itself on every worker the farmers try to employ.”

As Eitan Oged, who grows mangos in Moshav Ramot in the Golan Heights, put it, “My wife, my children and I have joined Likud. For a long time we’ve realized that farmers were ignored not because people on the outside were bastards but because we had no influence. Our fathers had red books [of Mapai members] and so they counted, but we’ve forgotten how we need to function.

“Meanwhile, the years have passed and the Agriculture Ministry has become filled with technocrats who prefer to lord it over us rather than serve the public. We decided to do something about it.”

Oged said that when the Plant Board was formed decades ago, its task was to maximize returns for growers, but that in recent years its role is no longer clear but growers are still required to pay it fees. He doesn’t want to push for shutting the board down entirely, but he does want to make it a voluntary organization.

But Avshalom Vilan, the director of the Israel Farmers Association and a former Knesset member for Meretz, said the farmers’ real goal is to close it. Still, he’s skeptical about their ability to advance their agenda.

“Even if 100% of the farmers join Likud, it’s equal to less than one Knesset seat,” he said. “I’ve never seen Likud ministers fight over who’s going to be agriculture minister. Private farmers simply don’t want to pay the tax, but when there’s a crisis in the pear sector, who will save them? The Plant Board.”

Neither are all farmers convinced that Likud will deliver. As Dugi Yisraeli, a farmer from Karmei Yosef, put it, “We had a romance with Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu in the 2013 election, but it was a big disappointment because they didn’t deliver the goods.”