Avigdor Lieberman and the New Far-right Israeli Center

As Herzog and Livni unite to woo the center-left, the fate of the elections - and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - will be decided on the center-right.

Reuters

1. Settlers and their supporters are habitual wishful thinkers, which is why they suffer from chronic disappointment. They were surprised by Begin’s Sinai withdrawal, dismayed by Shamir’s Madrid attendance, shocked by Rabin’s Oslo Accords , dumbfounded by Netanyahu’s Hebron departure, astonished by Barak’s Camp David offer, horrified by Sharon’s Gaza disengagement and absolutely flabbergasted by Olmert’s Annapolis offer.

They were also taken aback by Netanyahu’s two-state speech at Bar-Ilan in 2009, although they were accurate in their prognosis that it would amount to nothing. He didn’t have it in him, they said.

The source of the ultra-right’s recidivist misreading of the Israeli public’s mood is almost touching: when it seems to them that events on the ground have proven them right, they persuade themselves that bulk of the Israeli public has come round to their point of view as well. Which is why they are now convinced that they have finally and irrevocably won the argument: after Camp David, the withdrawal from Lebanon, the second intifada, the suicide bombings, the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Kassam rockets and the general Middle East mayhem, it is incomprehensible to them that there’s anyone left, other than the feeble-minded, who still believes in peace with the Palestinians or is willing to part with any part of Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem. It is not an illogical assumption, but it is, nonetheless, no more than an optical illusion.

2. Israelis are more right wing than ever in many ways - except the ones that matter most to the settlers and their supporters. They may have grown more intolerant, xenophobic, racist or disdainful of democracy, but their sympathy for settlements has increased only marginally in the past decade or two. Israelis don’t trust Mahmoud Abbas for a second, agree that Hamas is ISIS in drag, assume that Palestinians want to throw them into the sea and suspect that Israeli Arabs are one step away from a fifth column - but give them a half a chance to leave the territories and a leadership that will show the way, and most Israelis will follow, however reluctantly.

Just look at the most recent figures published this week in the monthly Peace Index published by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys: 59% of Israelis, including 54% of Israeli Jews, support renewed negotiations with Abbas based on a two-state solution; 56% agree with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s assertion that that “the unity of the people of the people is more important than the unity of the land.”

Or look at it this way - when trying to delineate political opinions, pollsters usually divide Israelis into three distinct groups: right, center, and left. Those who answer center-right are annexed to the right and those who answer center-left are added to the left. According to a recent poll carried out on behalf of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 11% of Israelis describe themselves as left, 13% as center-left, 18% as center, 29% as center-right and 22% as right. The headline will state that 51% of Israelis are right or right-leaning, 24% left or left-leaning and only 18% as center.

Read another way, however, and the news is dramatically different: 60% of Israelis describe themselves as centrist, with the “center-right” comprising the biggest voting bloc by far.

3. Ever since the centrist Dash party appeared out of nowhere in the 1977 elections to capture 15 Knesset seats, the center has served as the main launching pad for great-white-hope parties that have amounted to almost nothing. Only once has a centrist party reached power, and this was in 2006, when Kadima won the elections, albeit on the coattails of the by-then crippled Ariel Sharon. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid also did spectacularly well in the 2013 elections, though it is not clear whether it has any hope of repeating its success in the upcoming March 17 ballot.

In fact, Lapid may be quickly losing his constituency. By hooking up with Tzipi Livni, Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog is hoping to attract centrist and left-of center voters of the type who voted for Kadima in 2006 and may have voted not only for Livni’s Ha’Tnuah but also for Lapid’s Yesh Atid in 2013. That still leaves a sizeable chunk of right-wing centrists for whom a Labor-Livni alliance is way too left but who also feel uncomfortable with the increasingly settler-dominated Likud, which has moved to the right. Here Lapid may find himself competing with two no-less formidable rivals: Moshe Kahlon, the former Minister of Communications who has positioned himself as the working man’s hero and a Likudnik willing to give back territories, as well as Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu party.

4. Lieberman, you might ask? Rabid right-winger Lieberman? He’s now a centrist? Ok, let’s not get carried away. By most measures - especially his reprehensible attitude towards Israel’s Arabs - Lieberman is as far away from a stereotypical liberal/leftist as can be. He has traditionally been viewed as part and parcel of the right. But if one uses willingness to withdraw from territories as the sole yardstick, Lieberman is obviously miscast. And if one defines the right as that which will automatically endorse Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister – as Naftali Bennett has pledged - then Lieberman is no rightist at all.

In fact, this is where he has been staking his territory throughout the past year, either in reaction to Naftali Bennett’s having cornered the no-compromise right wing flank or because Lieberman realizes that this is where the Israeli zeitgeist resides right now: with utter loathing for the Palestinian partner, borderline-racist mistrust of Israeli Arabs, complete disdain for liberal do-gooders, human rights-hooey and constitutional hypocrisies, but, yes, a willingness to relinquish the territories, if conditions are ripe and the price is right.

Throughout the past year, Lieberman has often seemed like a contradiction in terms, reflecting, perhaps, Israel’s troubled soul. He’s made offensive offers to pay Israeli Arabs to go away to Palestine, but at the same time has been the sole responsible adult in nurturing relations with the U.S., which most Israelis, Obama or no Obama, continue to covet. He’s lambasted Mahmoud Abbas as an incorrigible inciter if not serial terrorist, but has made no secret of his willingness to withdraw from the West Bank under the umbrella of a regional solution, perhaps even the Arab Peace Initiative. He’s come so far that the Peace Index cites him as an authority in order to gauge the Israeli public’s willingness to make peace.

Lieberman seeks to cast himself in the same Nixon-to-China mold as some of his illustrious predecessors. The Israeli public is willing to make peace, it seems, provided it is carried out by a prime minister who is known at one time or another to want nothing less. That’s why they followed Begin and Sharon and even Rabin, grudgingly, but not Shimon Peres or other Labor leaders who appeared too eager to trust the other side. They would have followed Netanyahu as well, but rather than going forward, he preferred to stay put.

5. Lieberman’s electoral prospects, however, are not shining brightly. He has a lackluster Knesset list and many of his traditional Russian immigrant voters are moving on, rightwards or leftwards, to traditional Israeli parties. But the political arena is rife with rumors about the new stars that Lieberman may unveil and, more significantly, about a possible joint list with Kahlon or even one with both Kahlon and Lapid (though it is hard to see how those three will agree who among them will lead the list). And even if they don’t get together before the elections, they may very well collaborate in its aftermath in deciding whom to recommend as the next prime minister.

Though it seems unlikely now, if Likud emerges as the biggest party by far, Lieberman and Kahlon may have no choice but to recommend Netanyahu. But given half a chance, all three “right-wing centrists”, if we include Lapid, would like nothing better than to see Netanyahu go home, for their own sweet reasons. And all three may well prefer to see Bennett stay in the opposition as well.

But one thing is clear: the supposed lock that the right wing has on winning the next elections is anything but. The Israeli political map is in a state of flux, changing tis shape and contours as we speak: the left is different, the right isn’t the same and the center isn’t insignificant, as conventional wisdom holds, but the arena where Israel’s future will most likely be decided.