Can Kadima Hold the Center As Israeli Voters Move Forward?

By Bernard Avishai

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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Just days before Israel’s election, polls are showing Ehud Olmert’s Kadima list at somewhere between 35 and 42 seats, while Labor and Meretz together get between 21 and 28. Arab lists will get between seven and 10, depending on turnout. Likud and the parties to its right will get the rest.

Do the math, and you have to wonder, or worry, whether a moderate bloc led by Kadima centrists will really make it to the 61 seats it needs for a majority in the Knesset. Then again, the polls show something else: Undecided voters are, of all things, increasing. So exactly what kind of “centrists” are these that fail to reduce the number of undecided voters just days before the vote?

The branding here is unusually fatuous. If all one means by “center” is a vague desire to contain Palestinian terrorism yet distance oneself from fanatic settlers — and to do both without alienating Washington — then most Israelis are “centrist.”

But this is free-floating desire, not political identity; polls would have shown Israelis centrist in this sense before every election since 1967.

If, however, center means a resilient middle class majority — a kind of Chirac liberalism positioned between Socialists and Gaullists — that is not Kadima, nor Israel. Kadima holds a lead more because of what American political consultants call “triangulation” among competing constituencies than because of any positive vision that gradually captures the imagination. Kadima is counting on flocking behavior, not loyalty.

Talk of a center obscures how Israeli politics are more usefully seen as a contest of five electoral tribes, sometimes melting into each other and more often chafing against one another, each comprising about 20% of the electorate, or about 1.2 million people, each a peculiar tangle of wishes and resentments. Kadima offers a new, but hardly stable, way to patch them together.

The first — call it Tribe One — is veteran Ashkenazi, well-educated and “globalizing,” secular and hip, live-and-let-live by instinct, typically in the leadership of Israeli military intelligence units, living well in North Tel Aviv or Haifa’s Carmel. Kadima draws most of its leaders from here. Tribe Two is the residual hard core of the much larger North African immigration of the 1950s and 1960s, lower class, often badly educated, earning a third less than Tribe One, struggling with unemployment, following Halacha but not piously, still feeling it has a score to settle with “the Arabs,” caught in inner cities and neglected development towns.

Then there is Tribe Three: Russian-immigrant, hyper-educated, hyper-secular — about 25% were never “real” Jews back home in Moscow or Kiev — repelled by the Orthodox, but also hyper-nationalist, scornful of Muslim backwardness, dismayed by Israel’s squishy liberal intellectuals who don’t seem to know that a Jewish state is to privilege Jews. They are searching for an Israeli Putin.

These first three tribes intermarry at a high rate. Some vote their class interests, some their security fears — none of the three is monolithic. But identity politics play out among them in unpredictable ways, depending on whether security or economic issues dominate the headlines.

The remaining two tribes are more predictable. Tribe Four is ultra-nationalist and Orthodox — bronzed West Bank settlers sharing political views, if not personal styles, with pale haredi yeshiva students. Many in Tribe Four live as wards of the state, either in state schools or embattled settlements; they are theocratic, devotees not of the State of Israel but of the Land of Israel, having seven to 10 children per family — Jews for whom Arabs are the goyim and democracy is superfluous.

They suffer from what Arthur Koestler once called “claustrophilia.” They hate the idea of Israeliness. Their particular bane is Tribe Five, Israeli Arabs, living in towns segregated by both archaic public land policies and the residual discrimination of Zionist institutions, poor but up-and-coming, willing, if not eager, to enter a Hebrew republic, but enraged by a Jewish state that, for example, still treats the Galilee, where most of them live, as more promised land in which to establish a Jewish majority. They count on the idea of Israeliness.

Ordinarily, then, Tribe Three hates Four, condescends to Two, and doubts One; Two hates One, resents Three and for different reasons Four; One is afraid of Two, patronizes Three and hates Four; Four hates One, proselytizes Two, and is afraid of Three. All are afraid of Five.

In a time of relative peace, the educated Ashkenazi elite naturally leads the Russians and the Arabs, and enjoys the dependency of the Sephardim. The way to keep the swing tribes, the Sephardim and the Russians, in the camp of the declining Ashkenazi elite is to focus on Israel’s need to make it in the global economy, to which Israel’s leading high-tech entrepreneurs are now hostage — to focus on the fear of messing up relations with the West, or the economic burden and lawlessness of settlers.

This is what Olmert’s Kadima is doing in this election, even without Ariel Sharon. This is, in effect, what Ehud Barak tried to do in 1999, when he created One Israel to supersede Labor, though he fell just short of a genuine Knesset majority.

Labor, ironically, is helping Olmert this time, by partially splitting the Sephardic vote against the Likud. Amir Peretz, a stalwart son of Moroccan immigrants, the resident of a development town — the charismatic, veteran leader of the Histadrut super-union that organizes workers but no longer owns the factories of a “workers’ state” — seems to be persuading at least some of Tribe Two that their material welfare has been sacrificed to the cost of settlement. The Sephardic vote will certainly not go to Benjamin Netanyahu, who has presided over intense social inequalities as finance minister.

But like Likud leaders of the past, Netanyahu, along with Russian populist demagogues like Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, could well win many Russians back to a coalition with the Orthodox and the settlers, by focusing on the dangers to the Jewish state posed by “the Arabs” and by too-rich, too-cosmopolitan elitist peaceniks.

With Sharon heading Kadima, Likud was an arrowhead that had lost its wood. With Hamas in power, defending its past atrocities if not committing new ones, the right could win back enough Russian votes to deny Olmert a majority, leaving him forced to build a national coalition with Likud and some Orthodox parties — in effect, leaving him without a mandate to act decisively in a peace process, should new opportunities emerge.

So Kadima does not really represent the triumph of a new center so much as the provisional, favorable positioning of the sons and daughters of Israel’s old European Zionist elite, who have often felt like they’ve been in internal exile under Likud coalitions. That is not a bad thing if one assumes that any new conceivable peace process will be generated not by Israel but by some constellation of American diplomacy and European investment — that Israel’s government should be pragmatic enough to respond with constructive steps like the Gaza disengagement, rather than use Palestinian excesses as an excuse to build new settlements. Secularist, globalist, hard-line — literally, since they are hinging the security perimeter on a wall — but speaking vaguely about social problems requiring continuing economic growth, Kadima’s leaders have concluded that Israel’s globalized economy cannot stand more international isolation or violent instability.

The problem is that Olmert, Tzipi Linvi, Shaul Mofaz and the rest might actually have to make fateful decisions irrespective of external pressures. Vagueness for the sake of triangulation militates for repetition-compulsion, not new beginnings. They say they have beaten the intifada, and want to impose a unilateral security perimeter, with or without negotiations. They say they want “only” Greater Jerusalem and possibly Ariel, where Jews can be made a majority, not Greater Israel, where they can’t. They say they want to ensure a Jewish majority in the Galilee.

This all sounds pragmatic, but in a way that brings to mind the talk coming from Golda Meir’s national coalition of a generation ago when — speaking of demographic dangers, and complaining that Fatah was no partner — her government tried unilaterally to impose the so-called “Galili Plan” in the West Bank and exclude Israel’s Arab citizens from development land in the north.

Such vagueness, in other words, risks throwing leaders back on an obsolete Zionist consensus for the sake of unity coalitions. But will reducing any future Palestinian state to a series of impoverished enclaves, in which Palestinian entrepreneurs are impossibly hamstrung, really create a responsible, secular Palestinian bourgeoisie? Will keeping 250,000 Jerusalem Arabs within a Jewish wall really mitigate terrorism?

With one in four Israeli first-graders from Arab families, will more tensions and exclusion in the north not set off an internal intifada? Will preserving the status quo not encourage settlers to create new facts whatever the government rhetoric?

No doubt Olmert has thought about these things. The tribes of Israel will no doubt be interested in what will eventually be revealed.






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