Disgusted by Politics as Usual? Join a Party

A new social movement tries to change Israel by becoming big party politicians' most important constituents: primary voters.

In a video released by the voters' registration movement, two very different kinds of people can be seen planning birthday parties for their children. In the first clip, a young, educated secular Israeli father is forced to cancel his son's birthday party because over finances. In the second, a union member working at the Ashdod port closes down the port to celebrate his son's birthday in a truly fitting manner.

Between these two characters is an unbridgeable chasm. Not for nothing does the young secular Israel says "politics disgust me." In contrast, the Ashdod dock worker plays the political game until the very end.

The video clip, with its sharp sense of humor, illustrates the crux of the difference: The Israeli public went out into the streets en masse over the past year to protest their social and economic hardships and to change the face of the country. However, public involvement stopped there in the streets. The Israeli public refuses to take the additional step of acquiring political influence to bring its demands to fruition. The disappointment with the small gains from last summer's protest is an inevitable consequence of this. Anyone who says "politics aren't for me" shouldn't be surprised when they discover that their politicians aren't working on their behalf.

So who are the politicians working for?

Mitpakdim, a non-partisan social movement made it their goal to discover the answer. Ofir Yehezkeli, Ofer Berkovitch and Lior Meiri, three socially conscious young men, took on the individual parties to find out. Only one of these men, Meiri, who is the head of the Young Likudniks, had ever engaged in political activism for a recognized political party. Nevertheless, they were able to reveal the true number of political influential people in Israeli politics – the breakdown of their primary numbers.

In 2008, the last party primaries for drawing up Knesset parliamentary candidate lists were held. Three Israeli political parties choose their election's slate for Knesset members based on open primaries. They were Likud, Labor (including the breakaway Independence faction led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak) and Kadima. These three parties combined have 68 members in the current Knesset – an absolute majority. These 68 Knesset members were chosen based on the primary votes of 115,372 people, or less than 2 percent of Israelis eligible to vote.

Five Likud Knesset members – Danny Danon, Yariv Levin, Ofir Akunis, Carmel Shama-Hacohen and Zion Pinyan – were chosen to represent their party in the Knesset, based on the votes of between 1,018 and 2,400 primary voters in each case. A few thousand voters were also enough to elect Robert Tiviaev, Yulia Shamalov Berkovich and Nino Abesadze in Kadima, Raleb Majadele from the Labor Party and Shachiv Shnaan of Atzmaut. Each of these Knesset members owes their election to a small, limited number of people, whose demands they will find hard to ignore.

Moreover, during the Likud leadership race around a year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the party's top spot with 48,000 votes. His rival Moshe Feiglin, who represents the most radical West Bank settlers, earned 15,000 votes, with only 33,000 votes separating him Netanyahu and the party's top slot.

There is a saying that the Feiglinites have taken over the Likud, and it isn't just some empty phrase. Feiglin won 21,000 votes during the primaries for Likud's electoral list. Based on those numbers, Feiglin should have been number 21 on the Likud's Knesset election list. He only missed out on a seat in the Knesset because of a technicality in the party bylaws. Feiglin got to this number of supporters without having a broad-based support among the general public simply because settlers registered as Likud members and voted together in the primaries as one bloc. Mitkpadim estimates that the settler bloc in the Likud Party comprises between 15,000 and 20,000 registered party members.

Another important Likud voting bloc is the roughly 10,000 party members who work in the defense industry. This last bloc supports MK Haim Katz and their support explains his intimidating power both within Likud and the Knesset.

"Two blocs in Likud together comprise between 25,000 and 30,000 people – at the same time that the first-place MK in the party primaries, Gideon Sa'ar, received 35,000 votes," Meiri says. "We are talking about a few tens of thousands of people who are among the most connected and influential people in Israel. These are the people to whom the MKs owe their seats. Consequently, first and foremost the MKS serve all these people – the settlers, the unions and the Histadrut labor federation."

This is true, they say, for all the parties that hold primaries. In Kadima, for example, there is a serious problem with vote contractors. Thus, in the Druze town of Deir al-Asad, only 27 people voted for Kadima in the general elections, but in the Kadima primaries 1,000 people were registered as party members.

"At the end of the day, we need to ask who represents us because it's really not the MKs," Meiri and his fellow movement leaders say. "To get them to pay attention to us, we need to influence the selection of MKs by voting in party primaries. The state of affairs today is an illness afflicting our democracy – we have become a de facto oligarchy of interest groups, and this stems solely from the public's willful avoidance of politics."

So what is there to do? Register with a party, of course. "Hold your nose and step into politics" – just like Mitpakdim's slogan says – and everyone register with a party they identify with.

Mitpakdim is working to help make this goal become a reality by raising public consciousness, removing obstacles within parties that hamper registration efforts (for example, requiring a long qualifying period before a volunteer can vote in party primaries), or through an attempt to change the election law to enable truly public primaries. In several Western countries (like Denmark, Australia, Germany and Ireland) general parliamentary elections are held simultaneously with party primaries – each voter chooses a party and also marks on open piece of paper which party person he would like to serve as his representative in government.

So far, 5,000 volunteers have agreed to join the three major parties that hold primaries. They are trying to organize them into groups. The goal is for the new activists to realize that they are not alone that they do have the power to influence things and to remind everyone that people who work together as a unified block will achieve a much greater level of influence.

"We are organizing Facebook discussions for new volunteers to think together what goals we what to promote within the parties," says Meiri. "We also have a goal to locate positive personalities and encourage them to enter politics. Because the system is tied to vote contractors, odds aren't high that people with good intentions will be elected. We want to change this situation and use the votes of the new party members in order to run have independent candidates run in politics. The time has arrived to put politics into good hands. Instead just sharing feelings of disgust, we are working to change politics from the inside."