The one-man party, an odd fixture of Israeli democracy for the past three decades, seems headed to the political margins where its journey began ten elections ago.
Few people paid attention to this aspect of the situation in 1984, when a new party called Shas won four Knesset seats and inserted a marginal member into a cabinet of eight factions and 25 ministers. The small party was no player in that government’s main task, solving an acute economic crisis. Shas’ unique decision-making process was therefore mostly ignored.
However, less than a decade later that process – an entire parliamentary faction outsourcing its policymaking to one, unelected figure – produced the decisive vote without which the Oslo Accords would not have been signed.
Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party which obeyed its founder Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as unswervingly as strict Catholics follow the Pope, grew by the following decade more than four-fold, peaking in 1999 at 17 seats, or nearly 15% of the electorate.
With such dramatic growth, Shas became a central member in most of Israel’s recent governments, and, as such, a pivot of the entire democratic process. Yet the party’s internal procedures were autocratic. It never created a mechanism for its voters to become party members, it never offered them even a symbolic way of participating in the selection of its candidates for public office, nor did it offer a way to participate in its policymaking process.
Formally, party policy was made in two forums: the Knesset faction, and the five-member Council of Sages, to which the former answered. In practice, both forums received their orders directly from one man: Yosef. He decided who would run for the Knesset, who would get a cabinet portfolio, and how the party would vote on any significant issue, from the passage of a budget to launching a military operation or backing a peace deal.
It took a while to understand the difference between this structure and the one that had existed for decades in the older ultra-Orthodox parties, whose leaders hailed from Europe, unlike Shas, whose leaders were from Middle Eastern backgrounds.
European ultra-Orthodox parties also answered to rabbis, but their Council of Sages was more heterogenic and their parties were, and still are, loose federations of Hassidim, anti-Hassidim and these two Judaic traditions’ myriad sub-factions. Shas’ format, by contrast, was a one-man party.
Curiously, the political format that was pioneered by rabbis from the Arab lands was soon emulated in the ultra-secular setting of Russian-speaking immigrants, whose own version of a political sage was the current Foreign Minister, Avigdor Leiberman.
Lieberman’s authority stemmed not from any scholastic credentials, but from his ability to address the Russian-speaking electorate while mastering the codes and alleyways of Israel’s long-standing power structures.
Like Yosef, he too created no forums where his voters could participate in their candidates’ selection process, or be consulted concerning its policy dilemmas. And like Shas, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu faction steadily grew until winning 15 Knesset seats in 2009, despite its lack of internal democracy.
The party’s unique conduct became glaring in 2012, when Lieberman unexpectedly removed one of his senior lawmakers, then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon who had previously served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. As he was accountable to no one within his party, Lieberman didn’t bother explaining his obviously personal motives for the move – he simply deleted Ayalon from his party’s list of candidates for the following election.
Having thus been emulated on the right, the one-man party model was soon emulated in the centre-left, where then-TV anchor Yair Lapid cobbled together a list of attractive candidates. With them, he won 19 Knesset seats, an astonishing feat that made Lapid finance minister and his collection of political novices a pivot of the current coalition that, less than two years on, has now broken down.
Finally, after having been successful on the right and centre-Left, the one-man party model sprouted on the centre-Right, where former communications minister Moshe Kahlon is now cobbling together for his Kulanu (“all of us”) party list public figures like Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant, historian and former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, and Tsega Melaku, an Ethiopian-born director of a public radio station. Kahlon’s actions reflect an assumption that the personal-party model is alive and well.
Six weeks following the calling of early election and six weeks before voters cast their ballots, one consistent feature in all polls is low figures for all the personal parties.
On the face of it, this trend is circumstantial, but a closer look suggests it is substantive. The circumstances are one party’s schism and another’s corruption scandal. The schism is in Shas, where the party’s current leader, Aryeh Deri, failed to keep on board his predecessor, Eli Yishai, who is now running with his own party. Consequently, polls indicate Shas will lose about half its Knesset seats, while Yishai might not pass the new, four-seat threshold to enter parliament.
Meanwhile, Lieberman’s party is embroiled in a sprawling police investigation involving multiple municipalities, ministries, public agencies, lawmakers and also a minister and a former deputy minister. Police claim the party’s representatives created a system that channeled public funds to private pockets while dealing in public appointments.
While the arrests and investigations have yet to be followed up with indictments, three of the four ministers Lieberman appointed – Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aronovitch and Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir – have announced their retirements from politics, as has David Rotem the chairman of the Knesset Law Committee, another well-known party stalwart. While the four avoided attacking Lieberman, their departures are seen as votes of no confidence, doing little to offset Lieberman’s forecast plunge in his political fortunes from the 15 seats at which he once peaked to barely seven now.
Meanwhile, Lapid’s 19 seats are forecast to be roughly halved, and Kahlon’s new party is for now forecast to win a mere eight seats. The magic of personal parties, in short, may now have spent itself, and the reason is not just current circumstances. Closer observation suggests that the troubles into which the veteran one-man parties have run are the results of the model they adopted.
Shas has broken up hardly a year after its founder’s death, because with him gone the one-man party he founded has lost the glue that kept it together.
Lieberman was deserted en-masse when his project got into trouble, because people who join in a hurry a hastily assembled, inorganic party will also leave it much more easily than they would an established party with organised institutions, membership, elections, meetings, and deliberations.
And Lapid, too, had he answered to party institutions, would likely have avoided his one-man decision to hinge his political fortunes on a single economic program – the cancellation of VAT on first-apartment purchases. Any party forum, had he consulted or even just created one, would have prodded him to emerge with something broader than one technical plan. Lapid’s stubbornness concerning that plan helped spark the early election where he now stands to lose much of his clout.
Meanwhile, the two major parties, Labor and Likud, and their veteran satellites, Meretz on the Left and the Jewish Home on the Right, held primary elections that on the whole produced lists of candidates that left their leaders satisfied. As of this writing, these four democratically-run parties seem ready to garner between them at least 70 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, siphoning off up to 25 of the seats the personalised parties had previously won.
In short, the 2015 election seems to be heralding the decline of Israel’s one-man parties, and a return to the traditional parties and their internal democracy.
Indeed, in what may prove to be this transition’s emblem, Labor has introduced the antithesis of the one-man party, when it announced that its elected leader, Isaac Herzog, will rotate the premiership with his new ally, former justice minister Tzipi Livni, should they win.
Few expect this arrangement to actually happen, as the only constellation in which Labor will lead the next government would require it to be ringed by coalition partners whose acceptance of such a deal would be both mandatory and unthinkable. However, the humility Labor’s leaders displayed in forging this partnership contrasted starkly with the era of personalised politics that had been a fixture of Israeli party life for decades, and may now be drawing to a close.