Primary Season in Israel

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As the parties are complete and submit their list of candidates for the 2013 elections, this article reviews the different ways in which Israeli parties select their Knesset list, while focusing on the three parties that had primary elections this year: Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), Likud, and the Labor Party.

Choosing the list of candidates for parliament is one of the main activities of political parties. The methods by which these lists are determined may affect critical democratic values, such as competition, representation, and participation. The methods may also influence the behavior of legislators, and have an impact, for example, on party cohesion and party discipline.

Parties in Israel employ a variety of methods in determining their lists of candidates. In some parties, the party leadership determines the list. The candidates of the Yesh Atid party, for example, are determined by the party’s founder and leader Yair Lapid. Similarly, the lists of Shas and Yisrael Beytenu were created in accordance with the desires of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Avigdor Lieberman, the respective leaders of those parties.
Beyond this, however, there are more open bodies within Israeli parties that participate in determining the party lists. In some parties, the list is determined by a small group of party elite, as in the case of “appointment committees,” which are also called "nomination committees." This is the method that Kadima will be using in order to determine its list for the upcoming election.

In other parties, the party list is established by means of an internal election conducted within a party institution, such as a congress or a council, with delegates chosen by the party members. Meretz and Hadash are two Israeli parties that choose their candidates in this way.
Lastly, in some parties, the list is created as a result of primaries – elections in which all registered party members or even all of the party’s supporters – determine the list.

Figure 1: Candidate Selection in Israel: The Selecting Bodies

Figure 1: Candidate Selection in Israel: The Selecting Bodies

The term "primaries," which Israeli politics has borrowed from US politics, describes an "open" process, in which legislative candidates are chosen by a wide body of voters rather than by a small group.It should be mentioned that it is also possible to use primaries in order to choose the party's leader. As mentioned previously, sometimes Israeli primaries involve registered party members. In such cases, these elections are called "closed primaries," or "party primaries." In other cases, primaries enable party supporters or the general public to vote. In such cases, the elections are called "open primaries." The primary system is thus a system of intra-party elections in which at a minimum, all members of the party are given the right to participate. (See the area shaded in grey in Figure 1 above.)

The use of the term "primaries season" is not quite accurate in Israel, since in contrast to the situation in the United States, only a minority of Israeli parties conducts primaries to determine its list of Knesset nominees. Borrowing the term "primaries" for use in the context of Israeli politics has created some confusion, as the media, and even the parties and politicians themselves, often use this term in reference to electoral processes that are not open to registered party members, but are restricted to a more limited group of decision makers. Thus, for example, the process of candidate selection that took place on November 11, 2012, which was called the "Meretz primaries," was not, in fact, a primary, since only delegates to the party’s convention participated in the selection of candidates.

Three parties in the current Knesset have used the primary system in order to determine their lists of candidates for the elections of the 19th Knesset: Habayit Hayehudi, the Likud, and the Labor Party.The Tikvah party, which was a part of the National Union in the outgoing Knesset, also conducted elections using the primaries system, but their elections were non-competitive and were limited in scope. For example, Aryeh Eldad was the only candidate for the position of party chairman. The Green movement, which did not have representation in the current Knesset, also conducted primaries on November 30, 2012. The Labor Party has used the primaries system consistently ever since it first adopted the system in 1992. The Likud, in contrast, has not held primaries consistently. It adopted the primary system in 1993 and used it to determine its candidates for the elections for the 14th Knesset in 1996. However, the elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to change the method and to return the determining power to the members of the Likud Central Committee. As a result, the Likud Central Committee selected the Likud’s candidates for the 15th Knesset in 1999, the 16th Knesset in 2003, and the 17th Knesset in 2006. It was only in the period leading up to the elections for the 18th Knesset in 2009 that the Likud resumed choosing its Knesset candidates by means of primaries. This was the method that it used this year, in the period leading up to the Knesset elections of 2013, as well. Habayit Hayehudi, the successor of the National Religious Party (Mafdal), held primaries for the first time in its history in 2012, using this method to choose both the party leader and the party’s list of candidates for the Knesset.

In this section of this article, we will discuss the rules that applied to the three primaries that took place in November 2012 in order to determine the party lists of Habayit Hayehudi, the Likud, and the Labor Party.

The Right to Vote

As discussed above, party primaries grant the right to participate to registered party members. However, Israeli parties that use this method limit participation in the primaries to members who have undergone a “waiting period”Some of the parties are also accustomed to a waiting period for their candidates. – i.e., voting in the primaries is contingent on a waiting period that ensures that the voters have been members of the party for a  certain amount of time.

The main reason why Israeli parties require a waiting period is because of the excessive influence of "vote contractors" on the quality of campaigns and the outcome of the primaries. Vote contractors are professional vote recruiters who convince citizens – and even pressure citizens – to join a given party. In this manner, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of members are added to the party ranks. This system of recruiting party members lacks transparency, as the vote contractors do not reveal the names or identities of those who have joined the party until just before the primaries. At times, vote contractors arrive at the local party headquarters with boxes full of membership forms just before the deadline for registration for the primaries. Moreover, contractors have been known to register citizens as members of parties in a shady manner. Sometimes they pay the membership dues for new members or promise them other benefits; other times they register people without their knowledge and consent, or through deceit. There have even been cases in which fake membership forms have been submitted.

Adopting a waiting period that restricts voting in the primaries to members who have a certain amount of seniority in the party impedes the ability of vote contractors to add members to a party in order to promote a specific, immediate interest or agenda and to influence the results of the primaries. For members of the Likud, the waiting period is 16 months long. The only exception to this rule is past members of the Likud who wish to "come back home." In such situations, a special clause is applied that exempts the returning members from the wait period and gives them the right to vote in the elections that determine the party list. In the Labor Party, the wait period is six months. Habayit Hayehudi, which conducted a large-scale membership drive in 2012, only requires a two month wait before members are entitled to vote in internal party elections.

Table 1: Dates of Primaries, Number of Eligible Voters, and Waiting Periods

Party Eligible Voters  Date of Primaries Waiting Period
Habayit Hayehudi c. 54,000 November 13, 2012  2 months
 Likud c. 123,000 November 25, 2012 16 months
Labor Party c. 60,000 November 29, 2012  6 months

Voting Method

In the Likud, voting in the primaries is split in two. First, each voter chooses 12 candidates from a national list of approximately 60 candidates. The ballot instructs voters to mark exactly 12 candidates—any diversion from this number will disqualify the ballot. In addition, each voter is assigned to a specific geographic district and is permitted to vote for one candidate from that district. The Likud currently breaks its members down into ten districts: the Galilee and Valleys, the Dan region, Haifa, Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the Regional Councils, the coastal plain, the Negev, the Judean foothills, and Tel Aviv. Anyone who has served as a minister, deputy minister, or member of Knesset is not permitted to run in the district elections.

The Labor Party has less stringent guidelines and does not distinguish between national and regional candidates: each voter is permitted to mark between 8 and 12 candidates from a list of approximately 80 candidates.
Habayit Hayehudi uses a rating system that is locally known as the "Eurovision method." According to this method, each voter is asked to rate 5 of 15 contestants according to his or her preference. The most desired candidate is ranked number 1, the second most desirable candidate is ranked number 2, and so on through the fifth candidate. When the votes are tabulated, points are awarded based on the ranking as follows: the candidate who was ranked first receives four points, the second receives two points, and the remaining three candidates receive one point each.

Sample Ballot: Habayit Hayehudi Primaries for the 19th Knesset

Sample Ballot:  Habayit Hayehudi Primaries for the 19th Knesset

Voters were asked to rank five candidates as their first through fifth choice

Reserved Slots and Quota

The use of primaries strengthens the democratic value of participation, as under this system more voters participate in determining the Knesset list. Nonetheless, the primary system endangers another critical aspect of democracy: representation. The reason for this is clear: as long as the party’s list is decided by the party leader or a nomination committee, the party leadership is able to build a balanced list that guarantees representation of varied social groups, such as women, minorities, immigrants, young people, and representatives of different geographic regions. It is often in the interest of the heads of parties to have these groups represented on their list because it may increase the chances that citizens associated with these groups will vote for the party. If the list is determined by tens of thousands of recruits, however, the influence of the party leadership on the makeup of the list will decrease, and there will be no guarantee that the final result will ensure representation of these social groups.

In order to overcome this distinct disadvantage, parties use mechanisms that will ensure representation. There are a number of mechanisms that can guarantee representation for different social groups during the process of formulating the lists of candidates in the primaries. In the current elections, Israeli parties are using two of these mechanisms (Rahat, 2010):

  • The first mechanism is the creation of a separate district. In this mechanism, candidates from a specific social group or geographic region compete against each other—separate from the rest of the list—and are chosen only by voters who are from that specific group or region. The places on the Knesset list for candidates from the different districts are determined prior to the primary. In the current election campaign, for example, the Likud promised that its primaries would guarantee "separate district" representation for the ten geographic regions that it defined. Candidates from each of those geographic districts only compete with other candidates from the same district, and are chosen only by party members from that same district. The candidates chosen from the ten districts have been guaranteed spots in slots 22–37 on the party’s list.
  • The second mechanism is the use of quotas that guarantee minimum representation. Under this method, there are not separate districts; rather, candidates from a specific social group or from a specific geographic region compete with all the rest of the candidates for all of the votes. The party defines a minimum number of reserved spots for members of specific groups or regions in advance. If it becomes evident after counting the votes that the representatives of those groups or regions did not reach the reserved spots or higher positions on the list, they are promoted to the reserved spots on the list at the expense of the other candidates. If they reach the reserved spots or higher spots on their own, however, the reserved spots are nullified.

The three parties that had primaries this year have made good use of this mechanism:

  • The Likud guaranteed minimum representation on its list for women, immigrants, non-Jews, and young people. Candidates who are members of one of these social groups compete with the rest of the candidates for the votes of the party’s members, but the rules of the Likud’s primary system guarantee that these groups will have a minimum number of candidates on the list. The widest representation is guaranteed to women. In the first 34 slots on the Likud list (the first slot, of course, is guaranteed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) there are guaranteed spots for at least five women: the rules of the Likud primaries are that at least one woman will be included in the top 10, the top 20 will include at least one additional woman, and additional women will be included until slots 24, 29 and 34. As explained above, these guarantees are only in effect if women do not succeed in placing in these positions or higher positions on their own. For example, Tzipi Hotovely, the woman with the highest number of votes in the Likud primaries, placed 12th on the list, and was therefore promoted to the 10th slot; had she been chosen, for example, for the seventh slot, there would have been no need to move her up in the ranks. Since Miri Regev, Limor Livnat, and Gila Gamliel obtained spots 13, 17, and 19 respectively, there was no need for any additional affirmative action to guarantee minimum representation of women. Similarly, the Likud guaranteed that a representative of the immigrants sector would be in the first 21 slots, and an additional representative of that sector would have a slot in the top 30. One non-Jewish candidate was guaranteed a position in the top 25, and a representative of young people was guaranteed to be in the top 35.This includes regulations that are intended to guarantee that at least a partial number of their securities will be donated to new candidates: for women it was established that places 24, 29, and 34 will only be used to promote a female candidate who has not already served as a minister, deputy minister, or as a Knesset member. Similar regulations were established regarding promoting a woman to the 30th ranking, and regarding the promotion of a young person. As mentioned previously, anyone who served as a minister, as a deputy minister, or as a Knesset member is not permitted to compete in a regional selection, but only on the national list. It should be noted that in the 2013 elections, the Likud will be running on a joint list with Yisrael Beytenu. Accordingly, the final list of “Likud-Beytenu” will include candidates from Yisrael Beytenu, and Likud candidates will be moved down on the list.
  • The Labor Party guaranteed that women would be included in at least the following slots on their list: 5, 9, 14, 19, and 24—this in addition to Labor Party leader Ms. Shelly Yacimovich, who is at the top of the list. As in the Likud, women would only be promoted to these slots if they do not succeed in attaining these spots or higher spots at the outset. In addition, slots 17 and 25 were reserved for representatives of the cooperative settlement movement. One of these two slots was guaranteed to moshavim and community settlements, while the other was reserved for a representative of the kibbutzim (the candidate who received more votes got the higher slot). A similar arrangement was made for Israeli Arabs, for whom slots 18 and 26 were reserved: one of those spots was reserved for a representative of Druze Arabs while the other spot was reserved for a representative of Arabs who are not Druze. Lastly, the 20th slot was reserved for a representative of the immigrant community, and the 21st slot was reserved for a representative of underprivileged neighborhoods. It should be noted that the 7th slot on the list was reserved for Hilik Bar, the party’s secretary general.

    As in the Likud, the Labor Party also promised representation for different geographic regions. But while the Likud used the "separate district" method in order to achieve this, the Labor Party guaranteed minimum representation using reserved slots as described above: under this system, the candidates from the different regions compete with all the other candidates for the votes of the party’s membership and are promoted to reserved slots only if they do not make it to those slots on their own. Slots 22–23 were reserved for representatives of the various geographical districts.

    It is interesting to note that until this year, the Labor Party also used the "separate district" mechanism: in the primaries for the 18th Knesset, it used this method to guarantee representation for the Arab sector and the Druze sector (which were considered to be two completely different sectors at the time), the kibbutz sector and the moshav sector (which were also considered to be completely different sectors at the time), and different geographical regions. All of those groups also received guarantees of higher slots than they received in the current primaries. As a result, they were resentful of the changes that were made in the system of reserved slots. Nonetheless, the claim heard in the media that Shelly Yacimovich decided to "do away with reserved slots" is simply not true: all the sectors that were guaranteed slots on the list in the past had reserved spots this year as well.
  • Habayit Hayehudi guaranteed the 4th and 8th slots on its list, at a minimum, to women. Furthermore, the regulations of its primaries guarantee two reserved slots – 5 and 10 – for young people. These reserved slots are relevant, of course, only if women and young people do not place in these positions or higher places at the outset. And indeed, when the results of the primaries were tabulated, a woman, Yael Shaked, placed third, which was higher than the lowest reserved slot. The next woman who made it to the list, Shuli Mualem, was elected to the 8th slot. Accordingly, there was no need for the party to utilize its reserved slots for women. The election of Ayelet Shaked to the 3rd spot, however, caused an internal legal dispute within the party: Shaked is not only a woman, but she is also young. According to one interpretation, Shaked's election to the third slot fulfills the commitment to guarantee representation of both women and young people, which means that the 5th slot need not be reserved for a young candidate. According to another interpretation, Shaked's election should be seen as only fulfilling the guarantee of representation of women, and does not negate the guarantee that a representative of young people will get spot number 5. If the latter position prevails, the next young candidate, Yoni Shetbon, will be promoted from the 7th place to the 5th place on the list. The matter has already been deliberated in the party's court as well as in the Tel Aviv district court, but as of this writing, a final decision has not been made. It should be mentioned that similar legal issues were raised in the past in other parties, and therefore the guidelines for the primaries in the Labor and Likud parties specifically address this issue: the regulations for the Labor Party primaries stipulate that one candidate can be a representative of two sectors, while the Likud’s regulations stipulate that one candidate can only represent one sector.

Rahat, Gideon. 2010. "The Political Consequences of Candidate Selection to the 18th Knesset." In The Elections in Israel—2009, ed. by Asher Arian, Alan Arian, and Michal Shamir. Transaction Publishers, 2011. 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel. Assaf Shapira is conducting research for the IDI's Political Reform project.