New Likudniks legitimately play by the rules of a flawed game (The Times of Israel, 30 August 2017)

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party is in the throes of a public family feud.  Thousands of freshly registered Likud members, self-branded as “New Likudniks,” are accused by some (including by Netanyahu himself) of being closet leftists that are crashing the party (pun intended) to move it leftward.  Likud’s legal advisor, Avi Halevi, claims that the New Likudniks’ registration drive is illegal because it is “manipulative.”

In Israel, Members of Knesset (MKs) do not run in districts but vie for the highest slots in the (many) parties competing for the Knesset’s 120 seats.  Parties are entitled to select their candidates as they wish, and they do so in different ways.  Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman singlehandedly handpick their candidates by order of preference.  In ultra-orthodox parties (Shas and UTJ), candidates are selected by a “council of sages.”  In Likud, Labor and Jewish Home, Knesset candidates are elected by registered party members in primary elections (the English word “primaries” has imposed itself in modern Hebrew).

It did not take long for the Jewish mind to figure-out how to take advantage of primary elections.  Interest groups sign-up thousands of members to force the hand of candidates.  This is not mere lobbying: candidates do not stand a chance it they don’t toe the line of vested interests with large numbers of registered party members.  “Organized groups,” as they are called, multiply their influence by trading votes (“We’ll support your candidates if you support ours”).  Among Likud’s 100,000 or so registered members, organized groups include quite a range of vested interests: settlers, trade unionists, gays, taxi drivers, divorcés, and even cabbalists.

This free-for-all contest produces awkward results.  Trade-unionists impose their socialist agenda on a pro-market party; settlers block any move toward a two-state solution officially endorsed by the Prime minister since 2009; and showing-up at gay parades has become de rigueur for MKs of a supposedly conservative party.  Vested interest groups know that MKs pledge their allegiance disingenuously and for lack of better choice; but those groups care about submissiveness, not about good-faith.  Yet the side-effect of this cynicism is the rewarding of opportunism and of deceit.  Indeed, a quick glance at most Likud MKs is worth a thousand words about the shortcomings of party primaries.

Not only are the New Likudniks no different in their methods than other organized groups; but they are not, in fact, promoting vested interests.  Rather, they want to bring back sanity and balance to a party that has lost both.  To a party whose charter calls for free markets (Article 1.G), for the rule of law and for equal rights to all (Article 1.E); a party in which Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan failed to get elected in the 2012 primaries.

For praiseworthy at it is, however, the New Likudniks’ undertaking is not what is needed to cure the ills of party primaries.  The solution lies in introducing open lists in Israel’s electoral system.

Like in most democracies (65% of them), Israel’s voting system is one of party-list proportional representation (Knesset representation is proportional to the number of votes obtained by parties on election day).  Yet unlike most democracies that practice proportional representation, Israel does not allow voters to influence the composition of the list they vote for.  In open list elections, voters not only choose a party but also the order of candidates on the party’s list.  Israel belongs to a minority of countries (16%) that still practice a system of closed lists, i.e. a system in which voters are not able to reward or penalize their representatives.  In open list elections, candidates are selected based on their ideas, record and personality, and not by murky party machinations.  They are answerable to their voters and not to party stalwarts and vested interests.  In open lists, parties are still free to select their candidates as they wish (either by the party chairman, by a “council of sages,” by a central committee, or by primaries), but the last word belongs to voters.

Adopting open list elections in Israel would require legislation.  Chances of gathering a Knesset majority for such legislation would be higher were the adoption of open lists made optional, i.e. if parties are entitled but not compelled to open their lists to voters’ judgement.  Parties will be entitled to have the only and last word on their Knesset list, but they will have an incentive to adopt open lists because voters who hesitate between two similar parties on election day will go for the one that enables them to choose their candidates.  As for one-man-show parties that care a lot about their public image (think of Yair Lapid), open lists will enable them to repel the accusation that they are undemocratic.

Pre-Knesset primary elections (which Likud adopted in 2006 upon Netanyahu’s insistence) are fictitious and corrupt.  The New Likudniks a legitimately playing the by the rules of a flawed game.  In the 2015 Knesset elections, Netanyahu opened Likud’s campaign by promising to change Israel’s electoral system “within 100 days.”  It is not too late for him to honor this commitment by promoting a reform that shall improve the level of MKs and make them answerable to their voters.