In Search of Political Influence, Thousands of Left-wingers Join Netanyahu's Likud

Taking a page from the settlers' handbook Israeli doves are joining Israel's ruling party in growing numbers, in hopes of bringing about the change that eludes them in national polls.

'New Likudniks on a picnic near Shimshit in northern Israel on February 4, 2017.
Gil Eliyahu

The entrance to the Jezreel Valley communal village of Shimshit on Saturday, looked like one big parking lot. Two events were taking place in the adjacent forest, one right after another. There was an agricultural happening, followed by a more unusual event - a picnic dubbed the Shimshiada, sponsored by a group called the New Likudniks.

It was a political event, but the program didn't feature any speeches by Knesset members or audio-visual presentations. The guests counted about 100 newly registered members of Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own party, with children and dogs in tow.

Over the past three months, the New Likudniks group has signed up an impressive number of members. Its website describes the group as composed of “middle-class people who work, study, serve [in the army] and pay taxes, who love the country, [people] from the left and from the right, from the top to the bottom.” They believe that the way to exert influence is not only by voting in national elections but by playing a role in choosing which candidates appear on the Likud's future slate of Knesset candidates.

According to Tel Aviv resident Lior Meiri, one of the group’s founders, last November about 500 people signed up through New Likudniks, an organization that got its start in 2011 after the social justice protests of that period. The figure for December was 700 and in January the number exceeded 1,000.

Lior Meiri.
Gil Eliahu

Meiri sees several reasons for the rising numbers, including Netanyahu's personal attacks on Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan for allegations asserted on her show, Uvda; Donald Trump's inauguration as U.S. president; and the fact that the New Likudniks have managed, as Meiri put it, to capture hearts and minds.

Meiri says the Likud has signed on about 6,000 new members thanks to his organization. The decision to hold the event at Shimshit followed a parlor meeting several months ago attended by 30 people, who became new members, followed by another 50 or 60 more.

The organizers didn't assume they would attract a lot of support at Shimshit, a place where more than half the voters cast ballots for Zionist Union in the last elections held in 2015, close to another 20 percent voted fro Yesh Atid, and more than 10 percent opted for Meretz. All three factions are currently in the parliamentary opposition. Likud came in fourth in Shimshit, winning less than nine percent of the vote.

All those who sign up with the Likud may not necessarily vote for it in an election. In Israel the party you join to does not necessarily have to be the one you opt for at the polls.

Not everyone at the picnic thought there was a link between Knesset voting patterns and who was ripe to sign up as a Likud member. “I’ve never voted Likud, but it’s the party in power, and I’m afraid it will take time to replace it,” says Etti Markovich of the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. “I became convinced that this is the way to have influence, that voting in elections is almost insignificant compared to what happens in [party] primaries.”

Dan Rotem of Ein Sarid near Netanya acknowledged that he joined Likud four years ago but still hasn’t voted for the party in a Knesset election. “But I think it’s the most relevant place to influence it,” he said, referring to the primaries where parliamentary candidates are chosen. “I come from a generation that thinks that the party serves us, not that we [serve] it. I want to have influence over the party’s composition and when it is a fitting party, it will be assured of my vote.”

Itay Bar-Yosef.
Gil Eliahu

Inbal Samet, an archaeology doctoral student from Tel Mond, not far from where Rotem lives, said she joined Likud in 2012 and considers the most important elections in the country to be the party primaries, which she says “at least 95 percent of the public doesn’t participate in.”

Itay Bar-Yosef, a Shimshit resident, high-tech entrepreneur and photographer, said it's a difficult step for some people to become Likud members but they nevertheless understand that it is the right approach. People don’t understand that Netanyahu has shifted further to the right because of party's 15,000 members from West Bank Jewish settlements, Bar-Yosef said.

Speaking to the crowd at the picnic, Meiri, the Tel Aviv organizer, vowed: “You and I, we will each sign up 20 people. We’ll see to it that there are people from our own midst, and if we need to bring in people who up to now haven’t wanted to go into politics and didn’t want to attend because of bar-mitzvahs or weddings, they will come. We will win. The only question is when.”