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Can open primaries heal Israeli politics?

Israelis are debating the feasibility of open primaries, which would allow all eligible voters to select the leader of the political bloc they support.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Isaac Herzog, Co-leader of the centre-left Zionist Union, are pictured together as campaign billboards rotate in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2015. Israelis will vote in a parliamentary election on March 17, choosing among party lists of candidates to serve in the 120-seat Knesset. Currently, polls show Netanyahu's Likud party and the centre-left Zionist Union opposition running neck-and-neck, with each predicted to win around 24 seats in the Knesset. 

The Likud faced the greatest crisis in its history on the eve of the 2006 elections. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's establishment of a new party, Kadima, had left Likud in shreds. Little remained of what had once been a large ruling party. After replacing Sharon as Likud chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu convinced the party’s Central Committee to relinquish the authority to choose the party’s Knesset list and to transfer that power to the entire party membership. Netanyahu claimed that it could produce four or five more seats for their party, which was in shambles. At that time, the Central Committee had a reputation of being power hungry and corrupt. A mere 3,000 people decided on Likud’s representatives, which meant they could control the party's Knesset members.

It is still unclear how much the switch actually helped Likud. The party shrunk to just 12 seats in that election, positioning it on the smaller side of the midsized parties. Before each of the next three elections — in 2009, 2013 and 2015 — Likud held two primaries open to all party members: one to elect the party chairman and the other to choose its Knesset list.

The elections for Likud Party chair were always boring, as no real rival ever emerged to challenge Netanyahu. On the other hand, the vote to choose the list was always considered “difficult” for the contenders. Various pressure and interest groups, especially from the right and the settler movement, threatened Knesset members, forcing them to spend considerable amounts of money, sometimes out of pocket, to fund their primary campaigns. As happens in any election of this sort, various “hit lists” popped up as well.

The situation isn’t much better in the Labor Party, which also holds primaries to elect the party leader and its Knesset list. The idea of holding primaries open to all members of the party was first introduced to Israel by Yitzhak Rabin, in 1991. It was considered a refreshing new alternative to leaving such consequential decisions to the party apparatus. Over the years, however, the primary system has gone bankrupt. What began as a celebration of democracy devolved into an event for party hacks, with electoral “captains” of buses and ballot boxes, as happened when Israel Aircraft Industries’ dove in to back a candidate.

With the primary system increasingly perceived as a political gutter, the trend over the past few years has been the creation of “single leader” parties. In such cases, some political star or other creates a new party, picks the party's Knesset list himself and runs the party in accordance with bylaws that grant him an inordinate amount of power. There are many examples of this, from Kadima, headed by Sharon, to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu. It seems to be the hot new trend in Israeli politics. Assuming that there are no last minute changes, a “Ya’alon party,” headed by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, should be established based on this model to contest the next elections.

With the issue of the “right way” to select a Knesset list still unresolved, the idea of holding open primaries has started to gain traction over the past few months. Ofer Koenig of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) says that open primaries would do more than reduce the prevalence of such phenomena as organized voting, such as that overseen by unions involving their members, and voting contractors, typically party activists tasked with recruiting votes for candidates. The greatest advantage, Koenig says, is that it would increase the average citizen's involvement in the election process. According to him, the number of Israelis who participate in the important process of choosing party leaders is too small. For the March 2015 elections, for example, only about 120,000 Israelis participated in voting for the leaders of the four “open” parties: Likud, HaBayit HaYehudi, Labor and Meretz. That represents approximately 2% of all eligible voters!

Koenig compares this figure with the United States, where almost 60 million people participated in the 2016 primaries for the two major parties. This represents more than a quarter of all people eligible to vote.

Meanwhile, in June, Meretz raised the idea of holding open primaries to elect its party leader. Doing so, Meretz leaders believe, could open the party to new groups of potential supporters, something Meretz has had a hard time doing over the past few years.

Another person working to promote such a system is Zionist Camp co-leader Tzipi Livni. Having founded a single-leader party, Hatnua, in 2013, she has spent the past few weeks promoting the idea of open primaries in an attempt to establish a “democratic bloc.” She has said, “Israel needs two clear meta-lists, just like in the United States, where it is clear to everyone what it means to be a Republican and what it means to be a Democrat. The way to create these two blocs is through open primaries for the leaders of these blocs. If the public wants it, the politicians will have to join.”

At a July 25 discussion at IDI, Livni proposed that all the parties identified with the center-left bloc, and all organizations and associations that share their worldview, establish a mechanism to elect a chair for the entire bloc. The idea, as she explained it, is to invite anyone who identifies with that worldview to participate in the vote. Rather than voting for a particular party, they would be voting for a statement of principles. Livni believes that this could resolve the leadership crisis among the center left. Creating a unified bloc would help overcome the problems caused by politicians’ inflated egos.

“Right after the 2009 elections, I headed Israel’s largest party [Kadima], with 28 seats. Then the charts based on television polls started to appear. I heard one of the pundits say, 'It is a very impressive personal achievement, but the other bloc won,'” said Livni, recalling how her party had won more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud but still lost the election because of the blocs as events evolved over the next few days. Livni was unable to gather enough Knesset members to recommend to the president that she be asked to form the next government, so Netanyahu became prime minister.

Livni’s effort to win support for her idea among the other parties in the center-left bloc — Labor and Yesh Atid — has been met with deafening silence. She can, perhaps, draw encouragement from another participant at the IDI panel, Karine Nahon of the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, who studies the intersection of social networks and politics. Nahon is optimistic about the future of open primaries. She believes a switch to an open primary system over the next few years will be unavoidable due to the technological revolution and the attitude of people ages 30 and younger toward political involvement in general.

Nahon said, “They would find it strange to vote once every four years, because they are so used to being involved constantly through the internet. Technology will empower broader communities in the periphery to take part in the political realm, participate in the election of party leaders and maybe even to bring the next Obama to the fore, right here.”