30.01.2013 commentary by Dr. Avner Inbar

Election Analysis: Left, Right, and Center

The narrative that the Israeli "center" is on the rise could lead to an inflated sense of possibility that "peace" has a chance under Netanyahu — the "center" needs rethinking

Israel’s elections are being misinterpreted. Yair Lapid’s rise is portrayed as a swelling of the “center,” and his expected partnership in Netanyahu’s coalition is celebrated as a new opportunity for peace. The arithmetic, however, tells a different story: the center has not shifted whatsoever; the right shrank and the left grew. For the “center” this was nothing more than an elaborate game of musical Knesset seats. If the biggest mistake pundits have made in shaping this election narrative has been to herald Yesh Atid’s newly won 19 seats as a victory for the moderate “center”, the biggest mistake policy-makers could make as a result would be to call for resuming negotiations. Benjamin Netanyahu is not going to meaningfully engage with the Palestinians — and Yair Lapid can’t make him. Imposing another round of negotiations, in these circumstances, merely gives Netanyahu cover to maintain the status quo. Such negotiations will once again hang Abbas out to dry, further crippling him with his constituency and taking us even farther away from a solution.Lapid cannot modify the basic DNA of the Israeli pro-settlement right. Expecting the “center” to shift Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition from its fundamental political commitment is unreasonable. If forced to choose, however, the “center” will unflinchingly prefer Obama and the West over Bennett and the West Bank. Getting there, however, requires a very different strategy from the knee-jerk “let’s-get-back-to-negotiations” approach.

Was the Center Victorious

Pundits seem to agree that Yair Lapid, the leader of the new centrist Yesh Atid party, is the winner of Tuesday’s elections. He seemed to come out of nowhere, pick up 19 Knesset seats, and bypass Labor for second place after Netanyahu’s Likud. And while Lapid’s achievement was celebrated as a great coup for the Israeli center, beyond an exciting personal drama, it turns out that the country did not “turn to the center” any more than it did four years ago. In fact, it turned to the left.

Let’s do the math. Of the three voting blocs – right, center, and left – only the latter gained seats last week. The right (Likud-Lieberman-Jewish Home) lost six seats altogether, and the broader ultra-Orthodox-right bloc (aforementioned parties plus Shas and United Torah Judaism) lost four (despite UTJ’s two seat gain). The center, then represented by Kadima, had twenty-eight seats in the outgoing Knesset, one more than the combined tally of all three center parties in 2013 (nineteen for Yesh Atid, six for Livni's Hatnu'a, and two for Mofaz’s Kadima). So the center, widely proclaimed as the election’s unequivocal winner, actually lost a seat, all while staging an entertaining reshuffling of forces within the bloc.

The left, on the other hand, managed to gain five seats. Though not a landslide victory by any means, this is still a trend worthy of attention in an election in which both the right and center blocs stagnated or shrank. In fact, if Tzipi Livni's half-baked Hatnu'a party, whose campaign largely flanked Labor from the left, is added to the left column, the left bloc ends up with an astounding 11 seat gain since 2009. In short, the right lost either five or six seats, the center lost one or seven, and the left gained five or eleven. Lapid’s feat makes for better drama, but from a political perspective the real story is the clear, albeit insufficient, shift to the left.

While the press in Israel and abroad was mesmerized by Naftali Bennett's alacritous takeover of the Jewish Home party (formerly the National Religious Party), and his impressive, if ultimately mendacious, makeover of the Israeli far right, Bennett's eventual numbers are far less stellar than pundits and pollsters anticipated: The party garnered 12 seats, only a five seat increase from 2009, and pulled no new votes from the left, and only managing to internally rearrange the right-wing bloc. In other words, Bennett sapped some of Netanyahu's and Lieberman's power, but it is likely not enough to counterbalance the dominance Lapid will have in the next government.

The new electoral breakdown is supported by the findings of Molad’s extensive public opinion survey conducted last spring. While conventional wisdom would have us believe that the Israeli public drifted to the right in the aftermath of the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, a look at the numbers reveals an even breakdown of left and right political stances. Close to half of all Israelis still hold broadly left-wing views. The Molad survey showed an Israeli public evenly divided on all major issues. The election validated that finding, with a nearly even split between the two blocs. While the right is still the dominant bloc in the Knesset, the pendulum has clearly started swinging in the other direction. This might be an indication that the political system is beginning to converge with the actual views of the Israeli public.

Does Israel Have a Center

The “dark horse” center party is a recurring motif in Israeli elections. Lapid's achievement only slightly outpaced his father's when he led the Shinui Party in 2003 and swept 15 seats. Shinui managed to crowd out the ultra-Orthodox parties of Ariel Sharon's coalition, only to vanish into thin air three years later. The party could not deliver on its campaign promises — which, as it happens, bear a striking resemblance to those of Lapid Junior’s. Shinui lost credibility with the public, and received a meager 0.16% of the vote in 2006, failing to cross the electoral threshold (Father Lapid himself jumped ship to avoid the humiliation). Israeli center parties live fast and die young, and their achievements are similarly short-lived. A case in point is Shinui's success in disbanding the Ministry of Religious Services, a bête noire of secular middle class Israelis. With Lapid the Elder out of the way, the ministry was resurrected four years later. Other “centrist” parties like The Third Way, the Center Party, and even the Senior Citizen's Party (which gained a surprising seven seats in 2006) all evaporated shortly after promising debuts, leaving minimal marks on Israeli politics.

One reason for the nervous volatility of the Israeli center is that there is no real space for a centrist position in Israeli politics. The overriding issue on the Israeli agenda is at bottom an either-or question: land or peace. There is no in-between position. Lapid, like other centrists before him, simply misled his voters into thinking they can have it both ways by claiming, for example, that a peace treaty with the Palestinians is possible without compromise in Jerusalem. The center was and remains a way for Israelis to eschew or postpone vital decisions. Like children who cannot stand to hear their parents fight, they wish the deafening quarrel between right and left away. It is indicative that in a recent poll by the Brookings Institute, 37% of Israelis expressed support for peace with the Palestinians on the basis of the ‘67 borders, 30% objected, and a staggering 29% answered "neither". Since the two options are fairly exhaustive of the choices facing the country, the meaning of this "neither" is far from clear. It does, however, explain the electoral persistence of the Israeli center.

Most striking of all, of course, is the rise and fall of Israel's most popular center party, Kadima. The party, formed when Ariel Sharon broke ranks with the Likud following the Gaza disengagement, received 29 seats in 2006, 28 in 2009, and barely crossed the threshold with two seats in this election. Kadima's vicissitudes can teach us a lot about the general direction of the Israeli center. In the 2006 election, Kadima clearly drained voters from the right, causing the Likud, led by Netanyahu, to shrink to a historically low 12 seats. Three years later, the Likud bounced back with 27 seats, but Kadima retained 28 of its seats — an indication that its constituency was no longer traditional right wing. This time Kadima's campaign siphoned votes from Meretz and Labor. Indeed, Molad's survey showed 2009 Kadima voters holding views akin to — and even left of — those who self-identify as leftists, a feature which likely applies to many Yesh Atid voters as well.

Center parties still tend to align with the right when forming coalitions, since the right is still the largest bloc. But the more important point is that the center itself is gradually gravitating to the left. What’s pulling them is not ideology but political necessity: centrists tend to be pragmatists, and in today's Israel the right is increasingly ideological, self-absorbed, and even fanatical. Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were both right-wingers who aligned with the left due to the reality of the conflict. Faced with the same dilemma Lapid will most probably make the same decision. The question is if he is going to be pushed.

Will the Center Choose Sides

Some observers suggest that the election’s surprising outcomes provide a new opening for peace in the Middle East. The reason, one presumes, is that Lapid’s prominence will force Netanyahu to take a more moderate path. John Kerry’s reaction to the Israeli elections during his Senate confirmation hearings implies that the incoming Secretary of State buys into this fairytale. This is an unfortunate rehearsal for the repetition of past mistakes. Realizing why takes little more than googling the names Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, or Tzipi Hotovely. The hell the Likud “rebels” gave Ariel Sharon prior to the pullout from Gaza will pale in comparison to the nightmare that awaits Netanyahu if he dares to compromise on the settlement project. There is no point to negotiating where there is no willingness to dismantle settlements. And Netanyahu is no Sharon. Counting on Lapid to pressure Netanyahu on settlements is to fundamentally misunderstand the defining trait of the “center” —  the desire to refrain from taking a stand on the most toxic of issues. To resume negotiations under these conditions is, once again, to humor Netanyahu’s intransigence.

But this in no way entails that there’s nothing to be done. Rather than reiterate worn out formulae on resuming futile negotiations, the US administration and its allies in Europe should seize the opportunity created by this election. And that means forcing the Israeli center, currently embodied by Yair Lapid, to decide. Precisely because of his new status as kingmaker – and, possibly, Minister of Foreign Affairs — Lapid should no longer be allowed the luxury of not making a choice. And the choice between Greater Israel and the two state solution is the choice between the right and the world. It is silly to think that Netanyahu’s next government can reach an agreement with the Palestinians; but it is crucial to realize that this can be Netanyahu’s last government.

Lapid and his voters see themselves as part of the West; they feel more at home in New York than in New Givon (a settlement north of Jerusalem). Once the half a million Israelis who voted for Lapid realize that “neither” is no longer a valid answer, and that the time to choose between Obama and Bennett has come, the trend towards the left that began to emerge in this election might turn into a tidal wave. If the U.S. administration plays its cards right, the next Israeli elections can bring dramatic upheaval. And we might not have to wait too long. The next government is going to be extremely unstable, with Lapid having to choose between partnering up with the ultra-Orthodox or the far right. The government has been holding off austerity measures that are going to hit the Israeli middle class where it hurts, a move that will place Lapid between a rock and a very hard place. The next round might take place well before Obama leaves office. The question is if his administration has what it takes to make sure that he gets to enjoy bidding farewell to Netanyahu by making the center choose sides. 

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