Israel is a media icon standing for hope, admiration, and even salvation; or vilification and unrestrained hatred. Stories concern violence (either Israelis' struggle for survival or their destruction of others): terror attacks, missiles landing in towns, retaliation that pinpoints the guilty or errs and kills the innocent. Related to this is Israel's place on the agendas of the United Nations and international wannabes. Here the focus is condemnation by those obsessed, and defense by others.
In this season of political campaigning, there are vignettes that seldom reach the international media. Most are unimportant, except to the people who participate, or political mavens for whom every quest for votes merits attention. They reveal something about the country's style, even if they do not have much impact on what happens.
To understand the little dramas it is necessary to know some essentials of Israeli democracy. (We should ignore those who assert that such an evil place cannot be a democracy.)
Israel's politics begin with proportional representation. In the final election, citizens vote for parties, and each party sends to the Knesset a number of candidates on its ranked list according to the proportion of the total votes received. If a party gets enough votes to send 20 members to the Knesset, it sends the highest 20 on its list.
For our purposes, we can ignore the rules that apportion votes left over after assigning whole memberships. These fascinate some political scientists and a few others, but they do not affect a significant number of seats.
Individual citizens can vote in primaries in order to rank candidates on the lists of the major parties (Kadima, Labor, and Likud). To vote in a primary, a citizen has to join the party, and agree that monthly dues (about US $7 a month) will be deducted from one's bank account. There may be 100,000 members in each of the major parties. No more than 50 percent of each membership voted in this year's primaries.
The parties manage their own primaries, and they occur on different dates. A citizen can join only one party. There are central lists, and party functionaries examine them to spot individuals who have registered in more than one party. But others seek to recruit more members, and the checks against doubling up, or tripling up are not foolproof.
There is more thorough regulation of campaign financing for the final election than for primaries. Individual candidates do what they can to raise money and spread it around for advertisements and other purposes . If you want to find corruption in Israeli politics, this is a place to look.
Vote contractors claim to deliver support in the primary for candidates who are their favorites, or who have employed them. Prominent among the contractors are union officials, individuals in companies with numerous employees, and men who have come to prominence in Arab villages. Contractors buy party memberships for the people they manage, and provide a list of favored candidates. They also hire buses to transport their people to the polls, and check off who come to the primary. Individuals say that they are loyal to X, and X has told them how to vote. One can expect that large or small favors depend on appropriate behavior. The actual voting is secret.
Where do the contractors get the money and the inspiration for their lists?
There are lots of stories.
How important are the contractors?
Money spent is not a sure fire investment. This year the incumbents won high places on the lists of the major parties. Some of the names on the contractors' lists are prominent incumbents who again ranked high. Who knows how much their reputation carried them, or whether they benefited from the help of contractors? Some of the less well-known candidates on a contractor's list did well enough to win an assured a place in the Knesset. Most of these will be back benchers and remain unknown to the public.
Below the level of the major parties are the ultra-Orthodox parties, a new party that combines Modern Orthodoxy and nationalism (Jewish Home), a more explicitly right wing nationalist party (Israel Our Home), a number of Arab parties, and special interest parties for retirees, environmentalists, and the legalization of marijuana. If history repeats itself, individuals will create parties for taxi drivers, men disadvantaged in divorce cases, the advance of one or another Jewish ethnic minority. There is a party that curses all others and seeks to change the political system, and there is talk about a party that will abandon politics for something close to anarchism.
No more than 10 parties are likely to gain the minimum number of votes required to enter the Knesset.
Ultra-Orthodox parties rely on councils of elder rabbis to select their list of candidates. Other parties claim do it by committee, some of them dominated by the party leader. The new party calling itself Jewish Home has already split due to disagreements over the ranking of its list. There are two parties competing for the environmental vote, each claiming to be more green than the other.
Violence is seldom an issue in Israeli elections, but there was a commotion outside a Kadima party center. Druze politicians and their supporters insisted that the vote count did not rank them as high on the list as they should have been.
Meretz is a left of center party supporting social progress and peace with the Palestinians. It held a primary, but fudged it by inserting into a high slot a media personality who has editorialized in favor of the environment and welfare. Early in the campaign there was a gathering of prominent intellectuals who declared their intention of influencing politics. They have held talks with Meretz about joining forces, but it is still not clear who will get what. Unlike Druze villagers, these people are not likely to hit one another if disappointed. The most the losers will do is insult the winners with well crafted sentences.
Benyamin Netanyahu fiddled with the line-up of Likud candidates after the voting in order to lower the chances of an undesirable to reach the Knesset. Tzipi Livni committed the number two place on Kadima's list to Shaul Mofaz, who she barely beat in an earlier election for party leadership. Presumably she wanted to neutralize his efforts to lead an opposition slate within the party. Nonetheless, he worked with vote contractors in the bus cooperative and among Druze in order to create a bloc, but did not get any of his people into leading positions.
It is fun to read and write about these stories, but the international media is wise in ignoring them. Vote contractors and prominent intellectuals are colorful, but not likely to affect anything significant. The lists of the major parties look pretty much like they did last time. Incumbency is important here as in other democracies. Current surveys show Kadima and Likud tied with 30 seats, and Labor a distant third at 12 seats. On the prominent issues of peace and economic policy, there are no great differences between the major parties. No party is close to a majority. Another coalition is a certainty. After the election the details will differ from those of the current Knesset and government, but the general picture is likely to be familiar.
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Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Dept of Political Science
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem