Israel's Personality Cult Party

Likud is to be praised for sticking to a primary, but below the thin veneer of internal democracy, the ruling party focuses on one goal: rescuing Netanyahu's seat

File photo: An election campaign poster with the image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lies among ballot papers at his party's election headquarters, Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.
Dan Balilty/AP

The Likud primary Tuesday expresses a kind of internal democracy that is becoming extinct in Israeli political parties. Apart from the ruling party, only in Labor and Meretz is the candidate lineup chosen by a large number of voters. The remainder make do with elections in limited forums, or the arbitrary decision of an autocratic party leader. The latter is method is characteristic of the new political arrangements.

Primaries have quite a few disadvantages. The high cost of campaigning requires most candidates, who are not independently wealthy, to seek funding from donors. Thus, dependence is created between elected officials and the wealthy. And the larger the party is, the greater the impact of vote contractors on the outcome.

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But despite these disadvantages, primaries have value in encouraging the participation of party members: It’s hard to imagine a phenomenon like the “new Likudniks,” if it were not possible to influence the internal elections. Campaigning in a primary helps decentralize the political power within a party; the candidates do not depend only on a single leader; they need broader support. In the dictatorial parties, from Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid to Hosen L’Yisrael, Hatnuah and Hayemin Hehadash, there is a contradiction between fine words about democracy outside and rejecting it at home.

Likud is to be praised for sticking to a primary, albeit more restricted than in the past — the selection of district representatives has returned to the Likud Central Committee, and the members vote only for the national ticket. But below the thin veneer of internal democracy, the ruling party in recent years has focused on one goal: rescuing the seat of a prime minister who is suspected of corruption, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud campaign focuses on presenting Netanyahu as a victim of law enforcement agencies, which supposedly seek to bring him down in order to please “the media.”

Likud has no platform or detailed positions on issues of national importance, but only one question that will be presented to the public on April 9: “For or against Bibi.” Loyalty to Netanyahu is also at the center of the party primary. Those who failed to protect him — by not thwarting the police investigations against him and by not shutting down a critical television station — can be expected to slide to a lower slot on the ticket, or remain off it entirely; in contrast, criminal suspects whose prosecution the police have recommended enjoy the prime minister’s support. Thus Likud has gone from being an ideological party with a splendid past to an organization focused on a personality cult and on helping its leader to avoid a trial and imprisonment. The primary cannot hide the emptying-out of the party and its institutions of all principles as it becomes a city of refuge.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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