The narcissism of small differences Trying to understand why voters from the political center have to choose between competing parties, our correspondent speaks with three candidates - all of whom try to explain what has gone wrong
- The ideological optimism of left-wing parties Hadash and Meretz
- Happiness is personal, not national, Israelis say
- According to Israel election results, a woman's place is in the Knesset
- Preaching to the converted: Israel paying for Jewish outreach groups in religious settlements
On the way to Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah), I meet Yohanan Plesner (Kadima). Plesner was supposed to have been the Naftali Bennett of the Israeli center. Like Bennett, the chair of Habayit Hayehudi, he was in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit in the army, and like Bennett he had an adventure in business, and like Bennett, he worked in the bureau of an important national leader (Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ). Plesner is young, like Bennett, and energetic, like Bennett, and cunning, like Bennett, and just as handsome. But since Israel does not have a political center worthy of the name, Bennett and his party are now whooping it up in the opinion polls at 12 to 16 Knesset seats, while Plesner (No. 3 on the ticket ) and his party are teetering on the cusp of the threshold of the number of votes a party needs to get into the Knesset at all.
What has happened to us, I ask the energetic politician sitting across from me in a Ra'anana cafe. What has happened to the great promise of Ariel Sharon and Kadima and the Israeli center? How is it possible that opposite such an extreme and powerful right, there is such a wretched, lame and divided center?
Plesner defines the center for me: On the one hand, there's skepticism with regard to the Palestinians, and on the other, the determination to establish a border. On the one hand, maintaining Israel's international legitimacy, and on the other, using this legitimacy so as to exert enough force to create deterrence and preserve the quiet. And at the same time: finding a middle ground between a Jewish state and a democratic one, and between a free market and social justice. According to Plesner, Sharon embodied all this, and Ehud Olmert, when he was prime minister, implemented all this, and therefore Kadima became the leading party, one that represented a considerable part of the Israelis.
The big failure was in the area of ideas and on the personal level: Kadima did not do systematic ideological work, it did not develop a comprehensive agenda and it did not build up a hard core of people who really believe in the new idea of the center.
Thus, after the social protest, Livni crashed in the public opinion polls, lost in the party primaries and resigned. Thus, the center lost votes to the Labor Party and split into three different political entities.
In this election, says Plesner, it would have been possible to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The support for him is shallow and he is not that strong. But since the center didn't unite and didn't gel and didn't get over itself, Netanyahu will be prime minister and his government will be one of the most dangerous governments Israel has ever had.
Therefore, after the election, there will be a need to start all over again from the beginning. Whether on the basis of Kadima (which in fact in its new, modest format Plesner sees as a high-quality party ) or whether on some other basis, it will be necessary to redefine the center so Israel will once again become a sane country.
The enlightened rabbi
On the way to Tzipi Livni, I also meet Shay Piron. Piron is the enlightened rabbi (a graduate of the Mercaz Harav and the Shavei Hevron yeshivas ), who in the next Knesset will represent Yair Lapid's secular voters. During the past decade he has done a lot for the cause of religious moderation and a lot in the area of education, and he was opposed to the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He lives in Oranit, a settlement right smack on the Green Line, the pre-Six-Day War border.
Why did Piron accept his good friend Yair Lapid's request to be No. 2 on his list? Because of a sense of mission: It is necessary to break through the sectarianism, he says. It is necessary to change the image of Judaism. It is necessary to restore the dream to the children.
Rabbi Shay Piron is a man of stout body and high specific gravity, who believes that Israel needs to be a more Jewish state. The religious alone cannot make it more Jewish, he says. The "Jewish bookshelf" has to be a bookshelf shared by all. Every child has to know the prayer book and the Talmud and poet Yehuda Amichai. It is necessary to teach the young that Judaism isn't just challah-candles-commandments. Judaism must not be political and sectarian - it must be the source of inspiration for all of Israel.
During the first hour of our conversation, in a kosher cafe in Tel Aviv, Piron does not say a single word about the conflict with the Palestinians. But since the journalist asks, the rabbi answers: a united Jerusalem, refusal of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, retention of settlement blocs.
Is there any chance of peace based on a united Jerusalem? Piron assesses that there isn't a mere footstep between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but rather a fissure, and the chance of peace is slim. And yet as a Jew, he wants to be a pursuer of peace. Unilateral withdrawal? No. A building freeze? Definitely not.
Piron's daughter lives in Kiryat Arba and any attempt to keep her from enlarging her house or to prevent her children from having a school class to go to would be immoral. In the previous election, Piron voted for Habayit Hayehudi, but now he identifies with a party that prefers people to outposts.
Only at one point in our conversation does the ethical rabbi from Oranit really get heated up. When I ask him if Lapid and Livni should have got over themselves and run on a joint list, so that the right would be confronted by a strong center bloc, he roars.
"What's a central bloc? If Yair had united with Tzipi's Hatnuah I would have left the slate," he declares. "Livni, [Amram] Mitzna, [Amir] Peretz and [Meir] Sheetrit ran in their own parties and lost. They ignored the voter's mandate, and took money from the party from which two of them resigned. Their conduct arouses disgust among the public. Is this clean politics? This is moral rot. This is corruption. This is a disgraceful blot on Israeli society. Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah is a moral crime."
Not angry anymore
Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah is headquartered in an office building on Hamasger Street in Tel Aviv. The huge poster hanging on the building bears the same glowing photo of Livni from 2009, and that same red dot that accompanied Livni's campaign materials in 2009 and that same patriotic bright blue. But Livni 2013 is not the Livni of 2009. In fact, after she lost in Kadima and left politics, and then returned to politics - she is a lot more relaxed than she was. Smiling, reasonable, pleasant. Radiating a new self-confidence and emotional generosity and matter-of-factness.
Livni says she feels a sense of urgency that other people of the center apparently aren't feeling. The things Naftali Bennett told me in this series of columns two weeks ago have terrified her. She fears that in the choice between the Land of Israel and a Jewish-democratic state, we are liable soon to reach the point of no return. So too when it comes to the choice between a theocracy and a state based on the rule of law.
At the moment, the international community is on hold and the Arab world is on hold and the Palestinians are waiting and the intifada is waiting. But behind Bennett's pretty face hide the transfer rabbis of the National Union party, and behind Likud Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's pretty face and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan's pretty face, hide candidate Moshe Feiglin and MK Danny Danon. These extremists aren't going to allow Netanyahu to enter serious negotiations after the election, and they are even liable to do this the way they like to do these things - in a disputatious and provocative manner. If that happens, Israel is liable swiftly to find itself in severe diplomatic isolation and even likely to descend into violence. In such a situation, is it really possible to insist on social democratic agendas or politics of the new? Facing the dangerous front of the extremists, we need to present a front that arouses hope among moderates.
Livni arrives at our second meeting right after the smashup of her initiative to join hands with Labor Party chair Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid. This time the new campaign poster on Hamasger Street is serious and restrained; this time the chairwoman and the journalist meet at a nearby trendy restaurant where, within the black walls, soft French music is playing.
After consuming thick vegetable soup, Livni explains to me what exactly she had proposed to her two colleagues: a joint declaration and a joint campaign and a joint recommendation to the president after the election of a candidate for prime minister. If they manage to form a government - it would be a great joy. If not - they would still be able to force upon Netanyahu a true national unity coalition that would balance, restrain and block the extremists.
But Yair and Shelly would not agree to think big. They had coordinated in advance and they were not prepared to depart from the sectarianism of Shas-of-the-middle-class and the insistence upon not coming out against the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox. Neither of them behaved in the way Livni had hoped they would, in face of the huge right-wing threat ahead. And in the end, they turned on her with verbal violence.
So now we face a divided camp, I tell the attractive and assertive candidate in a suede jacket. Now it is necessary to choose between Labor, Kadima, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah. Why Hatnuah? Why Tzipi Livni?
The former foreign minister says that the first answer is personal: She is the only one who has the experience necessary for sitting in rooms where decisions are made, and preventing what former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin was warning about in his interview with Yedioth Ahronoth last weekend.
The second answer is ideological: Livni is the only one today who represents the totality of the values of the center that is trying to save the Jewish-democratic state. Only she is determined to fight the essential diplomatic-political fight, at the same time she is fighting for "equalizing the burden" and a change in the system of government, and for the rule of law. We really are fighting now for the Zionist home, she says. And in this war the small differences among us are dwarfed. For that reason, she says, we need to overcome personal and party considerations and we have to work together so that Israel goes back to being a place of which our daughters and sons can be proud.
I ask Livni what lessons she has learned from her successes and failures in the past? How has she changed?
The chair of Hatnuah raises her head and looks out at the rain coming down outside. After a long, thoughtful pause, she replies with surprising frankness. I think I am not angry any more, she says. I am coming from a "cleaner" place. I have been there. It was very comfortable me to resign at the peak. After all, I don't love all this and now I am beginning everything all over again after I had 28 Knesset seats. But when I looked at what was happening around me, I saw there was no one who would represent what I believe in and what many in the center believe in. I realized I didn't have the option of staying home.
Therefore, says Livni, I've come back into the arena, more focused on the task and devoting less attention to personal matters and background noises. I really believe I can bring Israel back into the bosom of the world within months. I can bring us back our international legitimacy and the regional standing that we are losing. Therefore, I am now doing what I am as someone who is more sure of herself. I am not looking back in anger, but rather ahead in hope.