In Israeli Election, the Center Holds

With the vote-counting nearly completed, it is already possible to draw a number of conclusions regarding the  2013 Knesset elections in Israel

First, the long-standing division of Israeli parties into"‘left and right" wing blocs does not fully capture the reality. The norm among analysts is to cite the existence of two competing "camps" in Israel -- the "left and the Arabs" bloc, and the "right plus the religious" bloc.  If seen in these terms the elections yesterday produced a tie, with each of these blocs winning 60 seats in the 120 member Knesset.

But if one considers that the "left" bloc is supposed to include everyone from the centrists of Yesh Atid to the Nasserist Arab nationalists of the Balad movement, and the "right" takes in Ultra-Orthodox Jews of Shas and secular, security-minded hawks in Likud, it becomes plain that this simplistic division is insufficient.

The "left" and "right" blocs were once characterized respectively as those parties committed to the possibility of territorial compromise as a road to peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, and those opposed to such a path on security or nationalist/religious grounds.

This was always an insufficient distinction. But it ceased to make sense a long time ago.  In Israel today, there are few true believers in "land for peace" because of the obvious failure of experiments in territorial compromise to actually bring about a peaceful solution. At the same time, there are also fewer ideological adherents to the traditional "Whole Land of Israel" philosophy of the right.

Rather, the salient fact of Israeli politics today is the existence of a large pool of voters who do not totally reject the possibility of compromise, but who are deeply skeptical of Arab intentions. These centrist voters are not fired up or primarily concerned with ideological and nationalist issues.

Amid the surrounding Mid-East chaos, they want normal lives for themselves and their children. Their priorities are largely identical to those of middle class voters in other western democracies -- taxation, personal security, standards of education.

The big surprise of the election results yesterday came from the strong performance of the "Yesh Atid" party of former journalist Yair Lapid.  Lapid’s appeal -- pragmatic, moderate, concerned with a fair sharing of the national burden -- was precisely to these Israeli centrist voters.  It worked.

But Lapid may want to note that his is only the latest in a long line of centrist lists that have done well initially by appealing to the Israeli center, but have subsequently failed to establish themselves as a permanent presence on the political scene.

Kadima, which last night went from 28 seats down to a projected 2, was an example of just such a party.  Before this, Israelis remember the Center Party of former Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak, the Shinui party of Lapid’s own father, the Third Way list of Avigdor Kahalani, all the way back to the prototype Israeli centrist surprise of Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change in 1977.

One of the central paradoxes of Israeli political life is that this middle-class, centrist public is the key presence and the backbone of Israeli society, but no party that has been able to retain its undivided affections for long has yet emerged.  Centrist lists in Israel tend to burn brightly but briefly. The system has a near insurmountable tendency in the end to go back to the dominance of the "historic" parties of Likud and Labor, which derive from the rival, pre-state Revisionist and Labor Zionist movements. In this more limited sense, the "left-right" division still makes sense.