Lenny Ben-David
Lenny Ben-David

I Pled Guilty in 2001. Now the Political Mistakes Are Repeated in Israel and the United States

This article originally appeared on Tuesday, January 16, 2001.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin’s accusation was only half in jest: “Lenny’s responsible for the election system we have [in Israel] today.”

In my diplomatic capacity in Washington last year (2000), I was escorting the minister and his aides to a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. As we stopped along the way for a coffee, Beilin made the charge. I knew what Beilin was talking about, but his aides were puzzled. Next came the explanation.

About 10 years ago, Labor MK Avraham Burg called and asked if I could brief him and several colleagues on the workings of the American primary system. I had served with an American Jewish organization since 1972 in Washington and Jerusalem, and U.S. election-watching was an important part of my work.

Burg received me at the Knesset and escorted me to a table in the members’ dining room. I was as surprised as others in the room when I saw the other MKs gathered for the private briefing: Yossi Beilin and Binyamin Netanyahu. Strange bedfellows.

As I recall, I briefed the ambitious politicians on the growth of primaries in the United States as the preferred method of parties choosing their presidential candidates. Gone were the days of the “smoke-filled rooms” of party hacks and veteran politicians who chose their party’s favorite. But I issued a stern warning as I gave them a monograph written in 1978 by a then-relatively unknown political scientist, Professor Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick.

“Primaries can kill political parties,” I cautioned as they took their copies of Dismantling the Parties, Reflections on Party Reform and Party Decomposition. (American Enterprise Institute)

Kirkpatrick was clearly disappointed by the Democratic Party’s choice of Senator George McGovern in 1972 and Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976. A less photogenic candidate such as Senator Henry Jackson would probably have been her preference as the Democratic candidate.

There were several underlined passages in the monograph I distributed:

“Carter’s campaign was a striking manifestation of the new politics, one demonstrating that a candidate without standing as a national party leader could move through the nominating process to victory without either the support of the leadership or a powerful ideological appeal or an issue constituency.

“The functions of the parties were being progressively assumed by government, public-relations firms, professional campaign consultants, and candidate organizations. 

“Primaries tend to personalize politics by focusing attention… on individuals who compete not as their parties’ nominees but as persons with distinctive characteristics. Because the competing candidates often share most ideological orientations, personal attributes such as appearance, style, and wit attain new importance.”

Indeed, sitting before me were three young, hungry politicians with their cool, telegenic, and articulate “appearance, style, and wit.” Standing in their way in their parties’ power structure were politicians 25 and 30 years older.

Kirkpatrick’s Prophetic Advice

One of Kirkpatrick’s warnings rings true even after many years and from a distance of 10,000 kilometers. “Because candidates can go directly to the voters in search of the nomination,” she wrote, “primaries permit candidates as well as delegates to be selected without having ever served an apprenticeship in the party, without ever being… socialized by the party.

“In addition,” Kirkpatrick continued, “the absence of any role for party organizations encourages a focus on personality and at the same time communicates to voters and activists alike a sense of the party’s irrelevance to this most important decision process.”

[The Republican Party should have paid attention.]

Israel’s adoption of a primary system could similarly lead to the decline of the major political parties, I warned Burg, Netanyahu, and Beilin. Burg’s response was a gleeful talmudic term accompanied by the required twist of a talmudist’s thumb upward, “ipcha mistabra” [The opposite reasoning makes more sense].

The three embarked on their political paths. They were soon joined by a handful of IDF generals, political neophytes who parachuted into the political fray. Together they instituted primaries, replaced party functionaries with outside political consultants, and effectively crippled their own political parties.

Today [in 2001], just weeks away from new elections under the old-new rules, Israel’s political body will be considering another change in the way we elect our prime minister and Knesset. Caution is required.

Kirkpatrick’s closing words of her study on political reform are worth repeating: “It is a basic article of faith… that for every ill there is a remedy; by now experience should have taught that, at least where political institutions are concerned, for every remedy there is probably an ill.”

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.