Israeli Life: Will the Center Hold?
Centrist parties in Israel have not had long political lives, a fact Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was primed to change. Today, many hope Ehud Olmert can continue his work.
February 8. Over the last several months, Israel’s political reality has been in almost constant flux. a Before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke and Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian Authority elections, both in January, it seemed clear that Sharon would be reelected and that Kadima, the centrist party he founded, would win a large number of Knesset seats in Israel’s March 28th elections.
With his policies on disengagement and security, Sharon made the center a potential reality. But can the center stand without him?
Many feel the new party’s popularity is a true expression of where the country stands today. In an article in The Washington Post, Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center think tank in Jerusalem, described Kadima as “hawklike on security, flexible on territory.” Polls in January showed that on the spectrum of Israel’s multiparty government from right to left, the majority of Israelis claim the center. And of the various party leaders, they regard acting prime minister and Kadima head, Ehud Olmert, closest to this point.
When sharon left likud and officially created Kadima last fall, party politics came in tune with the new realities,” says Arnold Enker, a law professor at Netanya College. “The establishment of Kadima loosened moderate Likud members from their far-right ideological moorings, as well as captured Labor politicians like Haim Ramon…. It neutralized the extremes in both left and right.”
Even the major political parties pulled toward the center with the realization that the country must accommodate geopolitical pressures from the United States and Europe (though Hamas’s victory has added some uncertainty into that whole equation). Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to create a new image for Likud by delegitimizing the far right within the party. Amir Peretz, Labor’s chairman, is trying to balance a social-welfare platform with a call for a free and competitive market.
Gerald Steinberg of the political science department of Bar-Ilan University feels Israelis have simply become pragmatic. “They’re tired of ideological solutions,” he says. “During the disengagement, fewer people were willing to go to the barricades for Greater Land of Israel beliefs.”
Even those who live in the territories admit the country has moved away from ideology. They fear it will lead to further disengagement in Judea and Samaria. Yisrael Harel, settlement activist and writer, calls it “the heritage of weakness,” which he claims Sharon has adopted.
Steinberg sees a more moderate temperament surfacing in other areas as well. “Greater moderation, for example, is apparent on issues of religion and state,” he notes. “Shinui [created by Tommy Lapid and known for its anti-religious platforms] is facing a total collapse. Their agenda is losing ground, while at the same time Shas [the Sefardi-haredi party] seems more moderate, even willing to accept a national constitution,” something they had feared would lead to separation of state and religion.
Disillusionment with the absolutist policies of right and left have been a long time coming.
“The first intifada in the late 1980’s showed Israel the price it must pay for the occupation,” says Klein Halevi. “It meant mortaging the country’s resources to maintain occupation. This brought about [Yitzhak] Rabin’s election in 1992 and the Oslo initiative. But during the 1990’s Israel also came to realize the illusory nature of the Peace Now conviction that peace can be achieved through negotiations with terrorist groups. Most Israelis would agree that the right was wrong about occupation, and the left was wrong about the Palestinians’ readiness for compromise and peace. Sharon realized that if neither is right, the only solution is unilateral disengagement.”
Arye Carmon, president of The Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank, points out that last year polls showed that 60 to 70 percent of Israelis supported the disengagement and a stabilization of borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. After years of intifada, Israelis yearn for compromise and moderation.
Despite optimism about the center’s current position, Israel has seen many centrist parties win popular support, only to dissolve soon after. The Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) emerged in the 1970’s in the wake of the unreadiness for the Yom Kippur War and corruption scandals that racked the Labor Party. Politicians from Likud and Labor, as well as many who had not been in politics before, rallied under Yigal Yadin. The party received 15 seats in the 1977 elections, but Likud won the election and DMC split over whether to enter a Likud-led coalition.
Avigdor Kahalani’s Third Way Party was also centrist. The party won four seats in the election of 1992 but also fell apart over personal bickering. Its successor, the Centrist Party led by former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, General Yitzhak Mordechai, Roni Milo and Dan Meridor, won nine seats in 1999, but deep divisions developed over Knesset seats, with each leader seeking to include his own followers.
The personality clashes that undermined previous centrist parties might also threaten Kadima. “Any public criticism of Kadima—and there is bound to be criticism—can send people back to the deeply rooted parties they came from,” says Sari Sasson, a social-change activist. “They’ll go back home to…the parties that give them warmth and an identity. “At the same time,” she adds, “many people will vote Kadima because of their love for Sharon. Kadima was his creation, and they feel they are carrying out his mandate.”
Though he acted unilaterally in Gaza, Sharon did not actually articulate a mandate. Last fall, Tzipi Livni, a senior figure in Kadima, presented a draft of the party’s principles. Now acting foreign minister, Livni declared that although Kadima considers all of Israel as the country’s rightful heritage, it would cede parts of it to maintain a Jewish majority and that there is an acceptance of the inevitability of a Palestinian state. The platform also acceded to the internationally brokered road map and called for maintaining major settlement blocs and supporting an undivided Jerusalem.
Yet these points do not address important specifics. Meretz-Yahad party leader Yossi Beilin points out that Sharon kept his real intentions hidden. “It is not really clear what he stood for,” he says. “What [territory] was he willing to give up?”
“Consequently,” says Klein Halevi, “he did not transform the centrist instincts into centrist ideology and systematic policy.”
An amorphous approach was adequate as long as Sharon was leading the country. But with his illness—as of early February he still had not come out of his coma—much depends on Kadima maintaining a united front.
“Everything depended on Sharon,” says left-wing former Knesset member Uri Avnery. “He was seen as a father-grandfather figure…. Politicians moved from both Likud and Labor into Kadima because they saw Kadima as a sure way of riding into the Knesset on Sharon’s popularity.”
Much also depends on the Palestinians. If terrorism increases, Israelis could return to a hard-line approach.
Amotz asa-el, a jerusalem Post columnist, notes that Kadima members are not political unknowns like those in Third Way and Shinui. “They’re seasoned politicians and can be relied upon for strong security positions,” he says. “Kadima’s candidates share a conviction, which is to unilaterally create a de facto border between Israel and the Palestinians.”
This is certainly evident in Olmert’s political approach. Years ago, he spoke of unilateral disengagement from the West Bank to assure 80 percent Jewish population in the state. He has also adopted Sharon’s closest advisers as his own and is credited with the competent transition of government when the prime minister fell ill. Having backed Sharon for a decade, he is seen as embodying his heritage. However, as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was perceived as a slick politician, playing up to the moneyed sectors of society. And unlike Sharon, he never won the public’s heart.
“Kadima has yet to mature,” says Asa-El. “Ehud Olmert would be the first to concede that Arik’s charisma was larger than his. However, political undercurrents as well as immediate circumstances are playing into Olmert’s hands.”
Israel today is pondering the lines of 20th-century Irish poet W.B.Yeats, “Things fall apart. The center cannot hold,” written in times of civil war and strife in Ireland. Israelis are also asking themselves, Can the center hold without the man who had the force of personality to make it a political reality?