A funny thing happened on the way to Sharon's easy victory.
Jan 13, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 17 • By TOM ROSE
THERE ARE FEW THINGS Israelis love more than a salacious domestic scandal. That much was proven here last week when the uncovering of an al Qaeda plot to murder thousands of Israelis with chemical weapons failed to knock off the front pages the corruption scandal featuring vote buying, influence peddling, underworld figures, and of course sex that has clouded the reelection prospects of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud party.
Like elected leaders everywhere, Sharon began his current campaign before all the votes from the last one had been counted. In 2001, his landslide victory over Ehud Barak was possible only because former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then the country's most popular politician, had decided not to run. Correctly surmising that Netanyahu would seek next time to become party leader himself, Sharon set about to purge the Likud of Netanyahu loyalists and replace them with his own supporters. Sharon's deputies, led by his 38-year-old son Omri, appear not to have let Israel's strict campaign finance laws get in their way. They managed to add nearly 60,000 new members, or 13 percent of the total, to the Likud party's rolls between March 2001 and November 28, 2002, when the party primary was held. As it happened, Netanyahu did indeed challenge Sharon for the leadership--and lost by a margin of 13 percentage points.
Unlike in the United States, where voting in primaries is usually open to any voter registered with the party, in Israel, voting in primaries is a privilege reserved for dues-paying party members. That Omri Sharon enlisted 60,000 new members was extraordinary enough. That they all managed to pay their $10 dues was downright amazing. Too amazing, as it turns out.
The most serious and probably hardest to prove of all the allegations center around Sharon's son. Omri Sharon allegedly recruited the services of a convicted felon and reputed underworld figure named Shlomi Oz to buy a security company owned by his own ex-girlfriend, which would "bid" for contracts to "provide protection" to Likud-associated businesses, the profits of which would pay the membership fees for the party's 60,000 new members. The implication is that Omri Sharon hired Shlomi Oz to create a protection racket.
Yet the public has been much more interested in the juicier revelations surrounding the Likud's selection of its candidates for parliament. Under Israel's proportional representation system, votes are cast for party slates, and seats in the Knesset are distributed among the parties according to their share of the national vote. A party winning 40 percent of the vote wins 40 percent of the seats, and so on.
It is the parties that determine which individuals will represent them in the Knesset. This year, 145 candidates vied in the primary for slots on the Likud list. Their showing in the primary determined their place on the list and thus their likelihood of securing a seat. While the party leader is chosen in a primary open to all 310,000 dues-paying Likud members, the party's list is selected by the 2,940 members of the Likud's all-powerful Central Committee. With so few electors, so many candidates, and very little oversight, it is perhaps no wonder that a 25-year-old Tel Aviv waitress could finish in twenty-ninth place, five places higher than Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, making her a shoo-in to sit in the next Knesset.
As in all democracies, power is a commodity, and in the Likud, as the Jerusalem Report's Gershon Gorenberg has written, the Central Committee is the market where power is bought and sold. Central Committee members have a lot of it, and few qualms about using it. Professional brokers offered to match candidates seeking votes with Central Committee members seeking bribes. It appears that there was no shortage of either.
Now, as the January 28 national election nears, Prime Minister Sharon is trying to get the voters' minds back on what was supposed to be the campaign's dominant issue: the fight against Palestinian terrorism. Even though Israel's left-wing Labor party still appears headed toward collapse and Sharon's Likud toward comfortable victory, the scandal has taken more than its pound of flesh. Polls that in mid-December predicted 41 seats for the Likud two weeks later showed it winning 31, with disgruntled voters moving toward smaller parties of the hard right and center. The Labor party, led by Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna, has been unable to capitalize on the scandal because voters seem more troubled by its policy of unilateral withdrawal to the 1967 borders than they are by Likud Central Committee members' and Knesset candidates' apparent willingness to buy and sell votes for meals, prostitutes, or cash.