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Eisenkot Is Right on Primaries

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Eisenkot announcing his intention to join Gantz and Sa'ar, on Sunday.
Eisenkot announcing his intention to join Gantz and Sa'ar, on Sunday.Credit: Hadas Parush
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

A year and a half ago, I wrote enraged criticism here about the campaign to run the latest general, Gadi Eisenkot, for Knesset. I thought, and still do, that the attraction of the center-left to high-ranking military officers had become a parody of itself.

Eisenkot is still the hottest name in the market of the centrist parties – but it is still unclear what his worldview is, beyond the halo of the IDF chief of staff. Up until Sunday, when he announced that he would be running jointly with Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar, he sat comfortably on the fence, waiting for the red carpet to be rolled out for him.

But on one issue I actually support him totally: According to a report by Amit Segal on Channel 12 News, one of Eisenkot’s conditions for joining a party led by Yair Lapid or Gantz was that the party hold broad primaries. According to Segal’s report, Lapid was “more excited” to accept the demand, and said his party has already begun the process of establishing the mechanism to do so. Ultimately, in agreeing to run jointly with Eisenkot, Gantz and Sa’ar agreed that their new party, the National Unity Party, would hold a primary sometime after the November election.

Over the past week, the country has been filled with the predictable reports on the evils of the Likud primary: Political deals, financial deals and the leader’s personality cult. They said the chosen slate represents loyalty to a single leader, and that this is an anti-democratic celebration disguised as democracy. All of it seems to be true. The Likud primary has for years symbolized all the problems that could very well occur in this system. Nonetheless, the alternative that expanded in the Israeli system – parties without primaries – is not better. To borrow from Winston Churchill: The primary system is the worst form of democracy, except for all the others.

Over the past decade, the list of Israeli parties that hold broad primary elections has shrunk, and more and more Knesset members are beholden to the one person who chose them. In Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Degel Hatorah a small committee decides, which means the same exact thing. In Hadash, Balad and the United Arab List, internal institutions (including the delegate system) are the ones that decide. When you look deeper at the measures of fundamental democracy, usually Meretz wins the greatest number of points on the scale of internal democracy. At the bottom are the Haredi parties.

One way or another, anyone founding a new party now no longer even thinks about acting any other way. Who needs the headache of democracy when you can appoint ministers based on whatever you feel like, mostly based on maximal control by the founders? Another chilling factor inhibiting primaries is the strict legal oversight into funding for candidates. This is a good thing, but the result is also greater potential for bad press compared to parties where the process of choosing candidates is unsupervised.

Nonetheless, center-left parties that aspire to protect democratic values must start with internal democracy. This does not necessarily mean adopting Likud’s method with all its defects. There are plenty more successful primary proposals. For example, Dr. Assaf Shapira, who specializes in the issue, proposes that parties adopt a more decentralized model of primary elections, using a number of stages and bodies alongside an open model, such as a “short list of candidates,” as is commonly used in Britain. Prof. Ofer Kenig has raised a ground-breaking proposal based on a “semi-open ballot,” in which voters choose a party’s candidates from its slate when they vote for the party. On this issue, it is worth listening to the latest ex-general in the headlines.

Center-left parties that aspire to protect democratic values must start with internal democracy and hold party primaries.

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