Opinion |

Forget Netanyahu. Israelis Have Fallen in Love With an Incoherent Kind of Centrism

Israel's wildly proliferating and popular center parties are, as yet, distinguished only by their leaders' dashing military records, blue eyes and banal self-help cliches

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An election campaign poster with the image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lies among ballot papers at his party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv. March 18, 2015
An election campaign poster with the image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lies among ballot papers at his party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv. March 18, 2015 Credit: Dan Balilty,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

It’s no exaggeration to call the Knesset elections - taking place in 80 days - historic. And it’s nothing to do with Benjamin Netanyahu. He will probably get Likud’s usual 30 seats, more or less, and most likely succeed in forming a narrow coalition. Then he’ll be forced a few months later to resign, once indicted for corruption. But this election is about much more than Netanyahu’s fate.

If the polls are anything to go by, on April 9, Labor will receive a single-digit result - only a small handful of seats. In 2015, in alliance with Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah, Labour’s Zionist Union got 24 seats and, for a brief illusory moment, it looked like Isaac Herzog was even on the brink of power. But it was an illusion. Herzog had little chance of actually overturning Likud’s winning margin and even less of forming a coalition. It was almost certainly a brief remission in Labor’s terminal decline.

The party that literally founded the State of Israel in 1948, despite the few brief comebacks of in the 80s and 90s, has never really recovered from losing power in 1977, after nearly three decades as the constant party of government. When Kadima won the 2006 election, decimating both Labor and Likud, Netanyahu succeeded in resurrecting his party. For Labor, it spelled the end of any real aspirations for primacy.

Avi Gabbay, chairman of Israel's Labour Party, gestures as he delivers a speech during a party conference in Tel Aviv. January 10, 2019Credit: AFP

Labor didn’t fail. Historically, Socialist Zionism - of which it was the main vehicle in its various iterations since being founded as MAPAI (The Land of Israel’s Workers’ Party) - was a resounding success. It was probably the only successful form of socialism anywhere.

David Ben-Gurion’s belief that unionizing Jewish workers and building a collectivized economy would serve as the most effective base for founding a state and ensuring its survival and prosperity was long vindicated. The success of Socialist Zionism simply means there’s no longer any need for it.

Labor didn’t stand just for socialism of course, it was never a truly left-wing liberal party, but it offered stable leadership under security hawks and pragmatic prime ministers. Two of them even had the good sense to abandon socialism.

In 1985, Shimon Peres’ national-unity government put together the price and wage-freeze "package deal" between unions and employers, reining in hyper-inflation and ushering in the neo-liberal policies that have kept Israel’s economy stable ever since. In 1993, it was Yitzhak Rabin’s government that provided the funds necessary to found Israel’s first venture-capital funds, which kickstarted the private tech sector.

But Labor’s past record, in founding the state or even in laying the foundations of its current economic success, isn’t a reason to vote for it today. A series of leaders have failed to articulate what it stands for today, and current leader Avi Gabbay, may not have done a stellar job, but he is hardly more to blame than any of his recent predecessors.

Perhaps a future leader will succeed in rebranding Labor and rebuilding its reputation for competent and stable leadership, but its current fading-away isn’t why this moment is historic. The disappearance of Socialist Zionism has left an ideological vacuum and we’re seeing it today in stark detail in the polls, with half-a-dozen very vaguely "centrist" parties, of which Labour is just one, jostling in the center-ground and despite saying nothing very much. Those parties are expected to receive up to around 40 percent of the vote in the upcoming election.

But what do they stand for?

Benny Gantz’s Hosen L'Yisrael Resilience party is now second in the polls, leading the centrist field, and it only launched its website and social media accounts this week, with a 19-word video of Gantz saying nothing. And that’s it.

Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief and the head of the new Hosen L'Yisrael party. Tel Aviv, Israel January 15, 2019Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

This is a fascinating situation. Socialist Zionism is gone. Labor has nothing to replace it with. And all Israeli centrism has to say for itself is Gantz’s silence and the banal self-help cliches of Yair Lapid. Over a third of Israelis have little else to identify themselves with.

Those Israelis are not very religious. But not militantly secular. In principle they’re OK with a two-state solution, but aren’t particularly motivated to campaign for it, as previous attempts for compromise with the Palestinians ended in bloodshed. They’re patriotic, serve in the army, do volunteer work, and are not at all ideological when it comes to their preferred economic system.

What makes them political is their evidence-based instinct that Netanyahu’s protracted reign is corrupt and that those around him are too radical to their taste.

What are they, these Israeli centrists? They don’t want to vote for the populist-nationalist Likud or any of its even more racist satellite parties. They’re certainly not going to vote for one of the religious parties. But they don’t feel "left-wing" enough to vote for Meretz. At different points in recent years, these parties could have been grouped under the "peace camp," but reaching a solution to the military occupation of millions of Palestinians is currently not on the national agenda.

Two of the recent Labor leaders, Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz, tried to rebrand their party as "social-democratic," and it just didn’t work. Can anything more substantial than Gantz’s blue-eyed gaze and Lapid’s pablum capture the center’s imagination?

Yair Lapid, leader of Israel's Yesh Atid party at the “Taking back Zionism” demonstration for Israel on August 28, 2016 at the Raoul Wallenberg Square in StockholmCredit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP

There are four main quasi-ideological camps in today’s Israeli Jewish community and the political left is by far the smallest. But Jewish nationalism, centered around Likud, is in the ascendant only because of its political alliance with the ultra-Orthodox camp. Its size, even at its peak, is not noticeably larger than the centrist camp, at least as far as it results in polls and actual elections. But the nationalists at least know today what they stand for.

Likud can trace its origins to Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement in the 1920s – Netanyahu uses today similar slogans and believes in Jabotinskian values. Even if most of his voters have never read a word Jabotinsky wrote, a lot of his work is still relevant to them. Ben-Gurion wrote a lot as well, but most of his oeuvre on building a state along socialist lines is no longer applicable today. His political successors are victims of his success. Israel is now older than most of the independent states in the world, is the most secure country in the region and has a Western-level economy. State-building ideologies are simply not needed any more.

Where can Israeli centrism find its ideological backbone?

The one thing to remember is that none of the main Jewish-Israeli ideological camps have their roots here. Jabotinskian ideology took more from Italian and Polish nationalism in the early 20th century than it did from yiddishkeit. Haredi ideology is a result of the rejection of enlightenment and emancipation by ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Eastern Europe. The Israeli left-wing certainly has more in common with its counterparts in the West than with any indigenous Israeli or Jewish ideology. The only truly Israeli ideology is the Jewish supremacist fusion between nationalism and ultra-Orthodoxy that serves as the bedrock of the hardcore settlers movement.

Orli Levi-Abekasis, head of the newly-formed Gesher party, quit as an MK for the Yisrael Beiteinu party in 2016 and has since sat as an independent one-woman faction.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

And all these camps have their counterparts in the Diaspora – there are Haredi communities there as well, tikkun olam left-wingers and even Jewish nationalists, who may be in a minority among American Jews, but are much more influential in Jewish communities in France and Eastern Europe.

Israeli centrism, like centrism in the West, in an age when the traditional parties are crumbling, is still ideologically incoherent. But it won’t stay that way. And if Israeli centrists want a better idea of the values they should be standing up for, they should look to the Diaspora, where liberal-minded Jews are usually much more politically-aware.

Centrism gets a bad name nowadays, but let’s be honest, most Diaspora Jews today are liberal centrists, and that’s a good thing. They have a sense of civic duty and decent, not too-radical, Jewish progressive values.

Just as its rather moderate brand of socialism was brought from abroad, the future ideology of Israel’s center-ground can be imported again. Moving on, belatedly, from a past era of building the state, Israeli centrists could do a lot worse than to look to their Diaspora counterparts for inspiration for how to sustain it.

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