The Rise of the Israeli Center Reflects the Fall of the Israeli Left

Out of ideas, energy or purpose, opponents of Netanyahu are intensely jealous of the passion that drives U.S. resistance to Trump

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Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 2012.
Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 2012.Credit: Avi Ohayon / GPO
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Haaretz editor Aluf Benn wrote this week of former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz, the new great white hope of the Israeli bourgeoisie. Gantz is “seen” by everyone as being center-left, Benn noted, though his known views so far consist of non-committal, catchall platitudes.

An independent run by Gantz would garner more than a dozen seats in the next Knesset, and given that the left and center are atomized, will effectively ensure Benjamin Netanyahu's next term in office. Gantz will free the prime minister from his dependence on the ultra-Orthodox parties and, with his impeccable credentials, is a natural fit for the defense portfolio, Benn noted.

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Our colleague Gideon Levy responded on Thursday. Levy seems resigned to the hoopla that will inevitably greet Gantz’s expected entry into politics, but would like to remind us that under his watch, the Israeli army perpetrated “crimes”, as Levy defines them, in operation Protective Edge and others. In any case, Levy doesn’t hide his disdain for the kind of so-called centrist politics practiced by Gantz.  “Middle-of-the-roaders generally have no positions except for ‘both this and that’ and a few slogans,” Levy wrote.

Which reminded me of my two favorite quotes about middle of the road politics. An un-sourced quote ascribed to Robert Frost asserts, “The middle of the road is where the white line is—and that's the worst place to drive.”  President Dwight Eisenhower, a notorious centrist, on the other hand, claimed, “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”

In Eisenhower’s day, both the Democratic and Republican parties were solidly centrist, with few real differences between them. Since then, however, American politics have followed the road taken by Frost, abandoning the center and consolidating two distinct ideological blocs, which, after the turbulent years of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, are estranged from each other as never before, if not downright hostile. In Israel, the trend, ostensibly, is moving in the other direction: In the 1950s, left and right were under the influence of their mutual animosity and ideological differences from pre-state days and maintained a fierce, intractable and binary rivalry. Today, a sizeable chunk of the voting public, from the moderate right to the moderate left, seems to subscribe to the Eisenhowerian point of view. For the past 40 years, it has been steadily moving to the center.

In the 1980s, the two major political blocs on right and left were still garnering over 90 seats out of the Knesset’s 120, but their hegemony was interrupted by the 1996 introduction of personal elections for prime minister, which were abruptly cancelled after two parliamentary cycles when the big parties realized that the reform had cut their Knesset representation down to a fraction of their previous size. The change, however, could not be undone. After the previous, long-standing proportional system was reintroduced in 2003, the Likud and Labor together got only 57 seats in the Knesset, a record that hasn’t been broken since.  In the 2015 elections, Likud and the Zionist Camp, comprised of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s remnant of Ariel Sharon’s now defunct Kadima party, garnered 54 seats together. Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, who positioned themselves between the two blocs, got 21. With Gantz in the ring, the next Knesset could see a centrist faction that dwarfs Labor and the left and runs neck to neck, in terms of its parliamentary size though not in its ability to form a government with the Likud and its allies.

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The centrist trend is often ascribed to the public’s disdain for extremes and perpetual yearning for a centrist knight in shining armor, a role that is increasingly reserved, it seems, for former army chiefs of staff.  Only 4 of the first 13 army commanders went on to politics, but 6 of the past 7 have entered the fray, to much fanfare and great expectations, The list includes would-be centrist idols Yigal Yadin in 1977 and Amnon Shahak in 1996 as well as the only two Labor leaders who won elections over this period, Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999 - mostly because of their hawkish credentials. Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya'alon both failed in their audition for the role of messiah-in-waiting but both are still politicking for another chance. Gantz’s predecessor at the IDF, Gaby Ashkenazi, was also seen as a savior for a brief period, and while he retains electoral appeal, it can’t compete with his successor’s fair looks, squeaky-clean image and please-all politics. Gadi Eizenkot, the current chief of staff, swears he’ll keep away from the political swamp, but his vow could go down one day as famous last words.

The steady rise of the Israeli center, however, reflects a trend that is deeper and wider than obsessive pining for a new and pretty face, which traditionally ends in disappointment. The so-called center, after all, does not draw equally from left and right: The latter is holding steady, while the former is bleeding, and, if current polls are to be believed, may be on the verge of collapse. After the Oslo Accords, over 30 percent of Israelis described themselves as “left” and less than 20 percent as center. In a recent Haaretz poll, only 17 percent described themselves as left, and 32 percent as center.

The abandonment of the moderate left reflects current trends in Western European countries, where social democrats are receding and the far right filling the vacuum and gaining ground. But rather than a recent reaction to the sudden influx of millions of refugees from Muslim countries, as is the case in Europe, the Israeli shift from left to right has been gradual and steady. The reasons for the left’s decline include demography, lost hopes for peace, Palestinian terrorism, Netanyahu’s successful demonization of the left and Labor’s continuing failure to select a candidate equal to him in eloquence, political smarts, bursts of viciousness and knack for twisting the knife.

The pivotal turning point for the Israeli left was the Second Intifada, with its incessant string of horrific suicide bombings. In many ways, the effect of the unprecedented wave of terror that terrified Israel, which lasted for close to three years, mirrors the impact that the 9/11 terror attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had on the American public. Both events hardened hearts, inflamed emotions, united the right against a common enemy and cast Israeli leftists and American liberals as wishy-washy collaborators. The American left might have suffered a similar fate to that of its Israeli counterpart, were it not for Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, which galvanized Democrats, renewed their fighting spirit and ushered in Barack Obama to the White House. And while the war in Iraq has ended, the foremost wedge issue that divides Israeli left from right – the occupation – has been with us for over 50 years, and judging by the current impasse, many more to come.

The Israeli Labor Party, moreover, is at a loss to formulate an acceptable alternative to Netanyahu’s get-tough-and-do-nothing attitude toward the Palestinians, which the Israeli public appreciates as long as it guarantees personal security. Moreover, in the mind of the public, Labor is still tainted by its socialist past, on the one hand, and is seen as representing Israeli elites, which Netanyahu regularly undermines, on the other. Contrary to the Democratic Party, which has maintained its social-democratic credentials by virtue of its inclusion of disadvantaged and downtrodden minorities, the Israeli Labor Party is estranged from them all: North Africans and Russians lean to Likud, the religious and ultra-Orthodox vote for their own and cling to the right and the Arabs, for lamentable if obvious reasons, are an entity unto their own.

Labor has also failed to harness the enormous resentment generated by secular Israel’s growing opposition to the Orthodox monopoly. It preferred to focus on issues of war and peace, ceding the field first to Yosef Lapid’s Shinui Party and then to his son Yair’s Yesh Atid. Consistently deluding itself that it is on the verge of returning to power, Labor has shied away from burning its bridges with the ultra-Orthodox, who traditionally play the role of kingmaker in Israeli politics, despite the historical fact that the ultra-Orthodox will join Labor only half-heartedly and only if they have no other choice, as they have in the past.

Given these political headwinds, it's no wonder that centrists tend to establish their credentials by imitating the right and trashing the left. Lapid, the king of the Israeli center, who may soon be dethroned by Gantz, has adopted much of the nationalist rhetoric of the right, if not its actual policies. He is following in the footsteps of his own father, who fought against religious coercion but felt more comfortable with the Likud. He's also following Israel’s first and short-lived centrist success story, Yigal Yadin’s Dash, which could have kept the left in power in 1977 but preferred to view its victory as a repudiation of Labor in the wake of the Yom Kippur War and to pave Menachem Begin’s way to the Prime Minister’s Office.

In today’s political reality, with Labor’s chances of forming the next government wavering between miniscule to non-existent and the ultra-Orthodox firmly ensconced in Netanyahu’s pocket, a vote for the center is, in practice, a vote for Netanyahu. Lapid, Gantz and other potential centrist parties that could take part in the next Israeli elections face a choice of either serving in opposition to Netanyahu or joining his government. Given the center’s right-wing rhetoric on defense and foreign affairs, and a politician’s natural yearning for a cabinet seat, their preference for the latter option is natural.  

The left seems helpless to change the equation, as its followers know only too well. Leftist voters are despondent over their ongoing hemorrhage to the center, which only deflates their motivation and enthusiasm further, creating a vicious circle. They can only envy the rising enthusiasm of U.S. Democrats, whose reaction to Trump is one of defiance rather than the paralysis that has gripped the Israeli left in the days of Netanyahu. Come November 6, hopefully, their envy could turn into unmitigated jealousy.