What Happened to Israel’s Center?

Opinion

By Shlomo Avineri

Published February 11, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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Nobody won the Israeli elections. Tzipi Livni’s Kadima managed to overcome the initial lead of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud by siphoning off left-wing voters from Labor and Meretz. Kadima, however, would have great difficulty setting up a coalition. Likud lost many voters to Avigdor Lieberman’s more strident Yisrael Beiteinu party, but the right-wing and religious bloc will control a 65-seat majority in the Knesset. Kadima’s slight lead over Likud notwithstanding, the country has moved significantly to the right.

Yet hardly three years have passed since Israel’s last election seemed to redraw the political map, with the centrist Kadima as the country’s leading political force.Kadima won a significant victory in the 2006 vote, taking a solid plurality of 29 mandates.The right-wing Likud shrank to only 12 seats — its worst showing in two generations.

Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 — dismantling more than 20 settlements and evacuating nearly 9,000 settlers — appeared to have broken the stalemate between right and left that had characterized Israeli politics for decades. Indeed, despite Sharon’s incapacitation after his January 2006 stroke, his newly formed Kadima party conclusively won the elections that followed.

By advocating a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Kadima gave Israeli voters a choice between the Greater Israel policies of the right and the left’s seemingly futile attempts to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Sharon’s approach appeared to offer a fresh alternative that galvanized the imagination of many Israelis and convinced them that even if negotiations with the Palestinians don’t lead anywhere, Israel can still make hard decisions about its future.

So how did we get from the centrist triumph of 2006 to the rising right-wing tide of 2009?

In the days that followed Kadima’s 2006 electoral win, things looked hopeful for Israel’s newly empowered political center: Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, set up a coalition government with Labor and immediately began planning for further disengagement, this time in the West Bank. The idea was to dismantle between 20 and 25 of the smaller, more isolated settlements, involving the evacuation of some 25,000 settlers. Most West Bank settlers would remain in place, but they would be concentrated along the l967 Green Line, thus creating a more or less contiguous Palestinian territory.

Then things went off course: Only four months after the elections, the new government found itself sucked by Hezbollah into what became the Second Lebanon War. Olmert’s initial boasts that the war’s outcome would facilitate further disengagement backfired when it became clear that Israel’s war machine would not be able to achieve its aims. Olmert’s failure in the war made further disengagement virtually impossible for his government.

Next, Hamas’s bloody 2007 putsch in Gaza undermined the very logic of Israeli unilateral disengagement. With Hamas slowly but consistently increasing its almost daily shelling of Israel with ever more sophisticated rockets and missiles, many Israelis who had initially supported the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza began to ask themselves whether disengagement was counter-productive: If what Israel was getting in return for disengagement was a fundamentalist Islamist government in Gaza committed to its destruction, then perhaps, many Israelis concluded, Kadima’s strategy was flawed and should be abandoned.

Finally, the various police inquiries into Olmert’s financial deals further weakened an already bloodied prime minister, ultimately forcing his resignation. (Although he has yet to be indicted on any charges.)

Against this background, the slogans of the right — “Only a strong government” (Likud) and “No loyalty, no citizenship” (Yisrael Beiteinu) — sounded much more appealing. After the failure of all methods of moderation, a frustrated public embraced those promising toughness, not compromise. With the international community’s failure to address Iran’s nuclear threat, such voices became even more appealing. And with Labor now relegated to fourth place, behind Yisrael Beiteinu, Israel’s political center has been significantly weakened.

The country is left with a number of unappealing options: a right-wing Likud government, including Yisrael Beiteinu and some combination of smaller right-wing or religious parties is one possibility — yet even Netanyahu must realize that this would be both a brittle coalition and not the kind of government he can present to the world. Another option would be a Kadima-led coalition, including both Labor and Lieberman — which is not very appealing or sustainable.

And then there’s what most Israelis would likely prefer, regardless of whether Livni or Netanyahu would lead it: a government comprising Kadima, Likud and Labor — not really a new center, but as close to it as possible, and excluding Lieberman’s racism-tainted party.

The coming days will witness a lot of horse-trading, some of it ugly: But maybe a hidden hand will guide a splintered and not always coherent political system toward what may, at the end of the day, be the only rational way out of the present conundrum.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.


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