Sunday night the Labor Party's new general secretary, MK Eitan Cabel, was forced to adjourn the party's central committee meeting when it descended into fistfights between the various groups of hooligans who comprise the "political" camps of the competing contenders for party leadership. Minister Dalia Itzik burst into tears when she received a blow on her leg and reportedly even the party leader, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, was roughed up a bit in the fracas.
To a degree, the fights between the street thugs, who now make up a significant chunk of the party's central committee membership, should surprise no one. After all, the reason the meeting was convened in the first place is that these people, at the behest of the five contenders for party leadership – Amir Peretz, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Matan Vilna'i – had managed a party membership drive so blatantly corrupt that there was no way to sweep the fact under the rug.
Of the 129,000 membership forms submitted ahead of primary registration, according to retired Judge Sarah Frish, at least 44,000 were "tainted." In the fine tradition of Tammany Hall and the late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine, forms were magically filled out by dead people as well as by thousands who are members of other political parties.
As a result of the membership drive, Arab Israelis became the largest Labor constituency. And yet, as was immediately discovered, many of those who signed up for membership were members of the same clan in the village of Kabul, who apparently were registered without their knowledge.
It seems that the main source of consternation among the candidates was that Peretz, as head of the Histadrut, managed, through his membership drive, to beat out Barak, Vilna'i and Ben-Eliezer in the polls. This, the three felt, was just wrong. And so, wrapping themselves in the robes of anti-corruption champions, they demanded that the primaries, scheduled to take place today, be postponed.
The thing is, there are thousands of people in Israel who ardently support the Labor Party. They believe in its political, social and economic ideologies. But in light of the mass voter drives, people who owe no allegiance whatsoever to the party end up outflanking the party faithful and determining its leadership. And so the core of Labor's supporters, whose members should be determining the party's leadership, is effectively disenfranchised.
THE PHENOMENON of political leaders bypassing their voters has become systemic in Israel in recent years. In 2002, ahead of the Likud primaries between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Sharon's campaign, led by his son Omri, registered members of the South Lebanese Army who didn't even have Israeli citizenship. Omri also brought in thousands of kibbutz members who had no connection whatsoever to Likud and had, one would suspect, no plans to vote for the party in the general elections. At the same time, to prevent citizens who believe in the Likud's ideological, political and economic platforms from joining the party, Sharon's camp forced applicants from various ideological camps to undergo a cumbersome and humiliating vetting process before being allowed to join.
And so it is that we have a prime minister, who, like his Labor counterparts, has used all the powers at his disposal to take control of his party away from its natural support base and transfer it to himself, with the help of professional voters who care nothing for the Likud or its policies.
The result of the disempowerment of voters is reflected in Knesset membership. Rather than intellectuals, entrepreneurs and statesmen, our parliament is filled with a shocking array of machine hacks whose central unifying feature is their willingness to be bought off for jobs.
So it was that Sharon was able to manipulate the Knesset vote for the withdrawal and expulsion from Gaza and northern Samaria plan by promising cabinet positions and deputy ministries to eight Likud MKs. And so it was that rather than form an effective opposition party, Labor MKs fought each other for jobs in Sharon's government.
In similar vein, Sharon used the power of his office to subvert the will of the World Likud organization to prevent former minister Natan Sharansky being elected head of the Jewish Agency. Playing off Jewish Agency members' tradition of supporting the prime minister's candidate, Sharon effectively prevented Sharansky from running against the lightweight and virtually unknown Sharon loyalist, Ra'anana mayor Ze'ev Bielski for the position. The campaign against Sharansky was run by Omri.
The fact that Sharansky, the best-known Zionist figure in the world, opposes Sharon's democratically dubious plan to expel 10,000 Jews from their homes and communities in Gaza and northern Samaria in exchange for absolutely nothing from the Palestinians, makes him unfit for the position.
Critics of Israeli political corruption on the Left generally focus their scrutiny on political patronage, particularly when it emanates from right-wing parties. They argue that political appointees are inherently corrupt. And yet in a democracy the opposite should be the case. What political appointees are appointed to do in most cases is force the unelected bureaucracies to conform to policies that politicians were elected by voters to carry out.
THE REAL source of corruption in Israeli politics is the voting system. In the current party system, political leaders are able to bypass and thus ignore the will of the voters by exploiting party procedures and institutional weaknesses through which they create artificial majorities for themselves and their policies. They then wrap themselves in the rhetoric of democracy in order to justify moves that could only be enacted by circumventing voters and prostituting democratic institutions.
There are currently two bills being circulated that would work to reform primary election procedures. Both would open primaries to the general public and have them held for all parties on the same day, much as is the case in the US. Such reform, which would put the focus on the voters rather than the politicians and take away much of their ability to manipulate voter rolls, would be a welcome move. However, not surprisingly, owing their power to the prevailing system, virtually no MKs in either the Likud or Labor support such reform.
The dark phase of political development that currently plagues Israel is not unique. In the late 19th century the US went through a similar crisis. As is the case with Israel's current political crop of hacks, that period in American political history brought such Churchillian figures as Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes into the White House. There they spent their single terms in office handing out jobs to machine men, only to be immediately forgotten.
Fortunately for America, when its politicians were corrupting the system and bypassing the voters, the country faced no particular threat from anywhere. In Israel's case, we find ourselves in one of the most dangerous periods of our history led by party hacks who owe loyalty to no one other than the unaccountable leaders who brought them into office.
Popular outrage was what caused the US to finally reform its system. Perhaps the footage of Labor thugs beating each other up at Sunday's meeting will provoke a similar reaction among Israelis. At any rate, reform can't come quickly enough.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.