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The best party money can buy

Byline: Miriam Shaviv

Date: Friday, December 20, 2002

Publication: The Jerusalem Post



The Likud's money-for-votes scandal may not cost it the election, but it raises questions about the ruling party's fitness to govern.

Peering into a white Volvo parked on a Tel Aviv beach, a passerby was

horrified to see the body of a man slumped on the front seat, with a .22

caliber revolver by his side. The suicide was soon identified as housing

minister Avraham Ofer, a veteran Laborite and one of the most powerful

politicians in the country.


It was January 1977 and he had put a bullet into his head after police began

to investigate allegations he dispensed funds illegally to his party.


Just one month later, Labor's governor-designate of the Bank of Israel,

Asher Yadlin, was sentenced to five years in jail for accepting bribes.


It was another three months until a general election was to be held, but the

public never forgave the ruling party. Labor dropped from 51 to 32 seats,

ending a historic 29-year run in power. Although its support levels had been

dropping since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, pundits consider these corruption

scandals the nails in its coffin.


Now pundits are wondering whether the Likud too has shot itself in the head

- or at least the foot - with another series of corruption scandals, on the

eve of another general election.


It appears that several of the Likud's 2,900 Central Committee members

demanded bribes in exchange for their support, when voting on the party's

list of candidates for the Knesset on December 8. The price per vote

apparently rose as high as $500 per head. Entire blocs of votes could be

bought for $70,000.


Not that some candidates had to be approached. One Likud MK, as yet unnamed,

hosted 200 Central Committee members in Ramat Gan's luxurious City Tower

Hotel, all expenses paid. Another candidate distributed checks of NIS 1,000

to party members at family events; another gave out cash by the polling

station; yet another asked his secretary to hint that she would be willing

to have sex in return for votes.


In addition, it appears that alleged members of Israel's underworld

including Musa Alperon, perhaps the most notorious of the lot, had become

Likud Central Committee members. Alperon, whose family is now suing Labor

for using the campaign slogan 'Vote Sharon, Get Alperon,' reportedly worked

on behalf of candidates he thought could be his allies in the Knesset.


Partially as a result of the shady dealings, it is suspected a number of

completely underqualified candidates won places on the Likud slate. These

include Avigdor Lieberman's one-time driver, the daughter of a family known

in police circles for its role in organized crime, who until last month

worked as a waitress, and a postal clerk who couldn't get a promotion. (See



While no one expects the emerging scandal to cost the Likud the election, it

may significantly dent the size of its victory. Polls, which two weeks ago

showed it winning more than 40 seats, now show it hovering around 35.


But even if the Likud rebounds, as it yet well may, it could take a deeper

hit to its reputation.


Political pundits are questioning whether the party has what it takes to

govern the country in a mature and responsible way, especially in the long

term. Just two weeks ago the Likud seemed poised to become another Mapai,

ready to take the country's reins for years to come. But is it taking its

role as the leading party seriously enough? Is it cultivating what Israelis

call a 'culture of leadership' - with the country's interests, and not its

own, at heart?


'Most Likud members don't have a sense of mission, but a sense of craving

the luxuries of power,' says Meretz leader Yossi Sarid. 'In this respect,

they are similar to Shas. It is as if they are saying, give us the

leadership, and we'll already know how to benefit ourselves.'


THE QUESTION is particularly stinging for the Likud, because for years the

conventional wisdom has been that it is not ready to govern. Labor, it was

said, was the natural ruling party, while Likud was an opposition animal.

Likud, it was maintained, can win elections, but doesn't know what to do

once in power.


For a brief period after Ariel Sharon won the premiership in February 2001,

it seemed that the Likud had put that demon to rest once and for all. This

was mostly thanks to Sharon himself, who managed to keep the national-unity

government together longer than anyone had expected, and cultivated a

business-like image, firing disobedient Shas ministers and promoting

qualified candidates to key positions over party hacks. His reluctance to

talk in front of the cameras gave him a statesman-like aura; ironically,

many commentators took to noting his Mapai roots.


Indeed, the prospects for the Likud in the run-up to this election could not

have been better. Not only did Sharon enjoy widespread support, but the

opposition seemed to crumble before him.


Former Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer's exit from the coalition turned

out to be a particularly inopportune move for his party. A nasty leadership

race left Labor bruised and divided, and Amram Mitzna, the new party head,

championed positions which were deemed too far Left for today's average



The primary election debacle, therefore, has Likud operatives running scared

- scared that they have hurt their chances for the January 28 vote, and

scared that concerns over their credibility have been resurrected.


Unusually, many senior Likud members, including Industry and Trade Minister

Danny Naveh, Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, Deputy National

Infrastructure Minister Nomi Blumenthal, Minister without Portfolio Dan

Meridor and former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, refused to comment for

this article.


Among those who would comment on the record, just one would say the Likud

may have a problem with its culture of leadership.


'I am very embarrassed,' says MK Yuval Steinitz, who won the 13th spot on

the Likud slate. 'I can understand why people are concerned; it doesn't look



The real problem, says Steinitz, is that the corruption at the primaries is

just the culmination of a long line of managerial improprieties in the

party. Likud, he notes, has been operating without a party secretariat for a

year, since the Sharon-controlled Likud administration and internal courts

dismissed Moshe Arens from the chairmanship. This left no supervision over

its organizational structure, including its election mechanism. The party's

convention in November, held before Binyamin Netanyahu and Sharon faced off

over the party leadership, was a 'coup,' he says, 'with no debates or even

one orderly vote.'


And after all this, he says, 'we decided on an unsuccessful method of voting

on Knesset members.'


STILL, Steinitz, like all of his colleagues, maintains that the criticism is

greatly exaggerated. He says that the number of central committee members

involved in the alleged corruption was relatively small.


'Most people in the Likud are idealists,' he says. 'The majority voted in a

professional way.'


Lior Horev, one of Sharon's campaign strategists, adds that many reputable

candidates were voted into realistic spots on the list. He specifically

mentions cabinet secretary Gideon Sa'ar and Or Akiva Mayor Ya'acov Edri, who

has been credited with initiating a full-scale social revolution in his

development town, reforming a poor educational system and making it one of

the country's best while greatly reducing unemployment.


'It is unfair to slander an entire party based on the actions of a marginal

element,' he says.


In any case, says Steinitz, 'we are still more fit [to govern] than the

other parties.'


He notes that there have been many incidents of misconduct in Labor,

including allegations of voter fraud. The police are also currently

investigating accusations that MK Eli Ben-Menahem tried to bribe a rival

candidate to drop out of the race, and suspicions that Mitzna tried to

bypass fund-raising laws via his dollar account in the US.


'I'm not sure why the police are not investigating these incidents with the

same energy,' Steinitz says. 'At least in our case, the phenomenon is

limited, and involves buying results, while in Labor, they just fake them.

I'm not sure what's worse.'


Both Steinitz and Horev place a certain amount of blame for the disaster on

their primary election system, which, they say, invites corruption. In the

Likud, the 2,900 members of the central committee may vote; in Labor, all

110,000 party members can. The result is that in the Likud it is easier to

cut deals in which blocs of votes are traded among the candidates.


In addition, more than half the Likud Central Committee members were new

recruits, voting for the first time.


'Veteran members can watch the MKs, and arrive at the vote when they are

ripe for it,' says Steinitz. 'Here, 55 percent of the voters were new, and

didn't have time to systematically evaluate the MKs.'


Of course, just because the system allows manipulation, it does not mean

that manipulation must take place. Many speculate that the corruption

probably would never have happened had the committee members not been wildly

overconfident, both in their own importance in determining the fate of the

MKs, and in the size of the Likud's victory.


'The hutzpa was at record levels,' says veteran Laborite Uzi Baram.


'They were drunk with power,' says Steinitz.


Perhaps here is finally another parallel with Labor of 1977, when decades of

rule emboldened party members to take advantage of their status. To what

extent the Likud under Sharon will suffer a similar electoral fate, after

just two years at the helm of power, remains to be seen.


(Box 1) You oughta be in politics


*No. 11 - Gila Gamliel. Gamliel took the Likud by surprise when she was

catapulted to the party's leading ranks in 1999 at the age of 24. Since the

Likud won only 19 seats, Gamliel was left out of the Knesset, but this time

is in a safe spot.


Despite her youth, Gamliel, head of the National Union of Israeli Students,

has already racked up her share of controversy. First, it has emerged that

she maintained her student status only because one of her professors

registered her for a course she never attended. This was followed by reports

of financial irregularities in the student union at Ben-Gurion University,

which Gamliel headed. This week, Army Radio reported that Gamliel managed to

stop the student union from firing her by threatening one of the student

council members that she would reveal sensitive material about his past

unless he helped her.


Gamliel said after her election that she would dedicate her efforts in the

Knesset to helping young people, and advancing women's issues and the needs

of the poor.


*No. 20 - Daniel Ben-Lulu. An Ashdod resident, the last job held by

Ben-Lulu, 44, was manager of a Postal Authority complaints division. He

requested promotion to manager of the southern region, but the appointment

was blocked by the legal adviser of the Civil Service Commission. Ben-Lulu,

it emerged, had accumulated many disciplinary infractions; he had involved

himself in political activity, which state employees are forbidden to do,

and signed employees' time sheets against regulations.


'I do not think he should be appointed to a senior position in the

authority,' the legal adviser concluded.


Ben-Lulu has previously served as a member of the Ashdod city council where

he was active on the workers' rights and sports committees. He decided to

run for the Knesset this year because he felt the 'time was ripe' to

represent his region. Ben-Lulu says he intends to dedicate all of his energy

as an MK to 'socioeconomic issues' and helping the weak sectors.


He apparently won his seat by concocting vote-swapping deals with senior

Likud ministers. His brother Leon, chairman of the Ashdod municipality

workers' union, recruited close to 5,000 members to the Likud, giving him

significant power on the central committee.


*No. 28 - Michael Gorlovsky. Gorlovsky's previous claim to fame is that he

used to be Avigdor Lieberman's driver. The 39-year-old is a resident of

Nokdim, as is Lieberman. He has a master's degree in mechanical engineering

and moved to Israel in 1988. He won a spot reserved for immigrants.


*No. 31 - Inbal Gavrieli. According to Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea,

Gavrieli is 'the symbol of the deterioration in... the election.'


As he wrote in his weekend column, 'I had a chance to meet her for a short

period... I met an embarrassed child, with nothing to say, just complaints.'


A Holon native, Gavrieli, 27, joined the Likud only one month ago. Her

political ideology is rumored to be close to that of Rehavam Ze'evi,

although she is currently not speaking directly to reporters. Her main

qualification as an MK seems to be that she is the daughter of a well- known

restaurateur who is considered an important power broker in the Likud.


The extended family is reputed to be 'well known to the police,' and

apparently went all-out to get Gavrieli into the Knesset, drawing on many of

its business connections. Gavrieli's father has long lobbied for legalizing

casinos in Israel, drawing some speculation that he wanted his daughter in

the Knesset in order to expedite the process.


Before last month, Gavrieli was a waitress in a Tel Aviv cafe. She is still

completing her bachelor's degree. For her army service, she worked as a

producer at Army Radio.

© 2010 Miriam Shaviv | Design by Danny Bermant