When I became secretary general of the Labor Party in 1984, I started out by dissolving the organizing committee, which had been there for generations. I’ll admit that I was jealous of Likud’s primary system. My colleagues and I found the system magical. It had a measure of populism and superficiality, but it was colorful and exuberant. It also represented a direct bond between the voter and the elected.
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I decided to start democratizing before running a party-wide primary. Neither Yitzhak Rabin nor Shimon Peres yielded easily on their hold of the composition of the party list. And yet, the democratization revolution began in 1988 with a slight variation on the Likud system. Instead of a panel ranking candidates in groups of seven, Labor ranked candidates in groups of 10 for the final vote by its central committee. The list of candidates for the Knesset became more varied and younger. Labor then held a party-wide primary in 1992. The decision of who would head the list, Rabin or Peres, was also handed over to the voters.
Likud today has close to 135,000 members, and it is indeed Israel’s largest party. However, in 1996 Labor had 300,000 members and 200,000 voters. The fact that it has shrunk over the years proves that the primary system does not guarantee a party-political prosperity. The public votes for a finished product and does not favor one method over another.
Indeed, Likud’s finished product is more concerning. The party approaches this election campaign wounded and fearful. Its expulsion from power was not a slap on the wrist. It was a powerful, petrifying blow that shook the entire party. Cabinet ministers who believed they were serving faithfully and activists who had won plum jobs felt that Naftali Bennett had betrayed them.
Likud’s current list does not look anything like previous lists. In previous primaries, the slates of candidates included diehard Likudniks in every sense – politicians like Yisrael Katz, Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan. They wished to impose their positions, but they weren’t there to declare war.
This time, in contrast, the slate constitutes a real declaration of war – first and foremost against the judicial authority. This fight has been the bread and butter of Yariv Levin since his days working in the Israel Bar Association. However, this time he is joined by many others, who want to cancel their leader’s trial and hollow out the independence of the judiciary system.
Benjamin Netanyahu is an intelligent man. He won’t base his election campaign on his ambition to be spared from standing trial. He will speak about security and the economy, about the cost of living and expanding the circle of peace. He will try to paper over the tremendous desire to eliminate the judicial system.
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Beneath that desire lies basically the ambition to liquidate liberal democracy and replace it with a nationalist democracy in the style of Hungary or Poland. Such illiberal democracies contradict the democratic principles that characterize European Union nations. Indeed, the campaign to eradicate liberal democracy, in other words, civil liberties, began in countries like Turkey and Hungary with attacks on the judicial system and moved on to battles against the free press and electoral systems that marginalize the power of the minority.
The challenge presented by Likud demands the utmost vigilance by the opposing bloc. Its leaders are keen to tout their achievements in government and the leadership ability they demonstrated in Operation Breaking Dawn. However, the anyone-but-Bibi bloc must put Levin, David Amsalem, Amir Ohana, Galit Distal Atbaryan and other prominent inciters at the front and center of its campaign. This is the way to prevent Netanyahu from determining the election agenda. We must force those who declared war on democracy to put the sword back in the sheath.