Whether or not the Kahol Lavan party manages to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party in the upcoming election, one fact is becoming increasingly clear: The arena of political confrontation in Israel has shifted. It is no longer taking place between the left and the right, but rather between the right and those with political opinions and a world view that no longer identify with the classical left, but at the same time also refuse to agree on everything with the right. That’s why they define themselves as centrist.
Because this is a political approach that mixes a little of this and a little of that, we can understand why it is arousing criticism and scorn among the more typical loyalists of the right or the left, who demand that the entire political map be defined in sharp and unambiguous terms.
Of course we can argue as to whether the parties that were always considered to be on the left of the political map really represent a genuine left, or whether Likud is faithful to the values of the deeply rooted right like Habayit Hayehudi. Purists on the right and the left certainly doubt that, and the fact is that the political concepts that until now defined the various parties on the right and the left were quite mixed up in the first place. The right frequently considered itself just as social-welfare oriented as the left, and the left considered itself just as patriotic and Zionistic as the right.
Social reality presumably demanded a far broader political common denominator, and yet the political habits of most Israelis guided them for many years to two opposite indicators, defined as left and right. Each pole includes a large ruling party and a smaller and more extreme satellite party alongside it. On the right, Likud and Habayit Hayehudi; on the left, Labor and Meretz. This bipolar system defined political life in Israel, and attempts over the years to extricate ourselves from it have all failed until now.
That’s actually a very surprising fact. In reality most Israelis mix concepts, principles and values from both worlds. Most of them want to separate from the Palestinians but fear the establishment of a hostile Palestinian state. The absolute majority wants democracy, but for them it is essential that this democracy will also guarantee their security and their identity as Jews.
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Almost all of them aspire to a welfare state, but they don’t want to allow large government systems to control their individual choices. The attitude of most Jewish citizens toward the Arab citizens is one of conditional acceptance: This is our country. If you’re with us, you’ll be a natural part of our society – but if you’re opposed to Israel as the state of the Jewish people, you won’t get our sympathy.
The ongoing effort on the right to convince most Israeli Jews that we must not give up a single inch of land is not acceptable to them. But at the same time, they are infuriated by the attempt on the left to convince them that genuine equality for the Arabs clashes with the values of Zionism and demands relinquishing the definition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. They’re in the middle – willing to compromise, but demanding that the country will remain theirs and that it will be secure.
The truth is that neither the right nor the left in their present form suit these people, and the old situation – in which political debates are divided between a fanatic right and a determined left (or vice versa) – has become an anachronism, and no longer conforms to the reality. The fact that the major political dispute today centers around Netanyahu is blurring this realization, because anyone who continues to support him defines himself as right – and anyone who opposes him in the other camp has until recently been considered left.
Removing this factor from the political battle will clear the decks and clarify the extent to which present-day Israeli society needs and is ready for a large centrist party.