While conducting an exasperating search through my overladen bookshelves for a tauntingly elusive something or other, I came across a yellowing 1996 clipping. It featured an analysis I wrote all those years ago about the then-just-concluded rounds of party primaries ahead of that year’s election. If ever a reminder were needed about how “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” this was it.
In fact my almost bar-mitzva-aged text included clues that go a long way to explaining today’s shenanigans – like why one of the Likud’s most upright ideologues, Uzi Landau, ended up in Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu. The party which survived Ariel Sharon’s unimaginable disloyalty – his barefaced betrayal of the platform on which he ran – should have honored and feted loyalists like Landau who sacrificed their own executive positions and partisan fortunes rather than expediently join Sharon in his treachery (as did all those shameless Kadima opportunists headlined by Tzipi Livni, Tzahi Hanegbi, Ronnie Bar-On, Avraham Hirchson, Meir Sheetrit and the most unforgettable of all – Ehud Olmert).
But Landau sensed there’d be no reward for altruism – a truth which should have dawned on others whom the Kadima turncoats cynically called “rebels” – like Michael Ratzon and Ehud Yatom.
Back in 1996, I quoted Landau’s warning that “the primaries will stifle any ideology and idealism still left in our politics.” He branded the primaries “a distasteful ordeal.” Not affluent himself, he found it “difficult to solicit for funds, but without money this system offers no chance. It’s almost preferable to seek contributions from Jews overseas than to be beholden to local benefactors who might later – at some point in future-time – need a ‘favor.’ Actually I’m comparatively lucky, having earned my name recognition before the advent of primaries. But for a newcomer, without celebrity, vast sums or well-heeled backers, it’s impossible to get a foot in the primary door.”
IN THE end, Landau predicted, “we’ll be left only with the rich in the Knesset or with those who managed to secure the patronage of questionable powerbrokers and kingmakers. Honest, capable, serious candidates won’t even try. The primary system encourages corruption and the rise of political godfathers, worse than in the infamous Mapai oligarchy of old.”
Doubtlessly still judging primaries debasing and discouraging, Landau seized the political lifeline offered by Lieberman. It’s disingenuous to blame him. It’s equally disingenuous to single the Likud out for criticism. Its primaries are actually the best and most open of them all, considering the number of eligible participants.
The primaries’ primary problem is our sycophantic awe for all things American. Superficially this stateside import appears like the ultimate cure-all – the perfect democratic means to deprive small forums of decision-making clout, potential for foul play and manipulation. Small forums theoretically can be prevailed upon, even bribed. Thousands of voters cannot be bought off. Yet, hype notwithstanding, primaries infect Israel’s body politic with maladies far more pernicious. They don’t even assure mass voter participation. The American experience shows consistently diminishing turnouts (Obamamania being a unique exception).
Additionally, primaries – especially for dozens of Knesset slots often involving different categories like national, local and sectarian – are extremely costly. Hard-strapped parties could be pushed into bankruptcy, increasing the temptation to foot bills illegally (as with Ehud Barak’s bogus NGOs or Sharon’s fraudulent expenditures and questionable loans – all in 1999).
THE COMPLEXITY of choosing multiple candidates in multiple categories invites deals, blacklists and the registration of counterfeit members. It’s hard to forget Sofa Landver’s 1999 defeat of Adisu Mesele for Labor’s “immigrant” slot by astonishingly winning a landslide in Druse villages where she was a total unknown. Such hanky-panky emerged with Israel’s very first Knesset primary, introduced in 1977 by the erstwhile Democratic Movement for Change. Incredibly, thousands of elderly Druse flocked en masse to its reformist cause, registered and won eligibility to vote in the primaries. The seeds of the DMC’s demise were sown at its birth.
Worst of all, the system which elicits unthinking mesmerized adulation celebrates shallowness and vague likability in populist contests where heavy ideological baggage constitutes an insufferable encumbrance. It’s a system incompatible with Landau-types but tailor-made for the Sheetrits in our midst. Sheetrit indeed did exceptionally well in the Kadima vote. No surprise. A quintessential chameleon, he always blended splendidly into his chosen political environment. Years ago he begged me to give him a speed introductory course on Jabotinsky, because “it’s always useful to throw in a few quotes at central committee sessions. It wows the old Herutniks.”
Said “old Herutniks” are largely gone now and Sheetrit’s current milieu emboldens him to crowingly shed “Jabotinsky’s suitcase and Berl Katznelson’s backpack.” He’d probably do well to sincerely bone up on the wisdom of both, but it endears him to fellow know-nothings to derisively ditch the founding fathers. Sic transit gloria mundi. Having been exploited, the old-timers may be discarded.
Sheetrit’s substance-deficient politics invariably transport me back to the University of Wyoming at Laramie, where academic pursuits took me in my salad days. An archivist in the internationally renowned American Heritage Center on campus assisted my rummage through the incomparable repository of documents while ceaselessly humming the same upbeat melody over and over.
FINALLY, ALMOST diffidently, he revealed that this wasn’t folk music, but an election jingle just two years old, yet popular well beyond the political race that spawned it in 1976. That was when Malcolm Wallop, a wealthy rancher from Big Horn, decided he’d like to represent his state in the US Senate.
The consultants he hired could find nothing with which Wallop might recommend himself or wallop the incumbent. They therefore composed a rousing western-style song, exhorting voters to “come join the Wallop Senate drive.” The lively cowboy tune accompanied a video clip showing Wallop leading cheery riders – all suitably attired in buckaroo garb and hoisting aloft the state flag – galloping exuberantly across the range.
The reason Wallop should be elected, according to the vibrant refrain, was that “he’s Wyoming to the spur.” The copywriter who came up with this immortal campaign line couldn’t later specify what “Wyoming to the spur” meant. He intuitively sensed “it somehow sounded good,” which is why he adamantly insisted on it.
And right he was. Wallop defeated his very able predecessor and went on to win more elections because he had a catchy jingle, a resourceful PR team and money to shell out. Issues were largely beside the point. Just as they are for Sheetrit and his numerous ilke, seemingly determined to assault all our assumptions and demonstrate that our political messages can be every bit as meaningless as the most vacuous out there.
What Wallop could do in untroubled Wyoming, assorted Sheetrits can surpass in beleaguered Israel.