The latest opinion poll in Israel has predicted that the new centrist party, led by former army chief of staff General Benny Gantz, would win about 15 seats in the next general election on 9 April. The poll is a good place to start with an analysis of centrist parties in Israel.
The phenomenon is nothing new; there have been centrist parties in the Zionist state since its foundation in Palestine in 1948. In Israel’s system of proportional representation, smaller parties can have electoral success. In 1977, the Democratic Movement for Change (known by its Hebrew acronym Dash) was formed and had a surprising degree of success in that year’s elections. It won 15 seats and formed the first coalition government led by the Likud Party, having basically replaced Mapai (the Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel) among voters’ preferences.
The relative success of centrist parties in almost every election ever since demonstrates that it is a phenomenon that is not going to go away. Nevertheless, it also reveals the unwillingness of Israeli voters to learn from experience about the performance of these parties.
It is known, for example, that politicians belonging to the centre generally refrain from expressing explicit opinions on any subject in order to keep their options open. The centrist vision can be summed up as follows: “We are against the crazy right and delusional left and want to control the institutions of authority and change the status quo.” That may be the case, but do Israeli centrist parties actually stand for anything?
It should be noted that experience shows that centrist parties tend to lose their appeal to voters once they are represented in the Knesset because it is clear that they are unable to meet the hopes that supporters pinned on them at the polls. These parties are not prepared to focus on specific topics which they may well have supported during the election campaign, but still must be prepared to make decisions on issues on the public agenda.
It is no exaggeration to say that most Israeli centrist parties have no position that they can call their own, and rarely talk about principles or ideology. Their positions are usually fixed more on what they reject rather than what they support. They are not with the right wing, for example, to oppose the annexation of occupied Palestinian land, but still give backing to construction taking place in the illegal settlement blocs.
When the Nation State bill was in its draft stage last year, the centre said that it supported it but is against discrimination and was only against the draft bill because it was unnecessary, its timing was bad and it would distort Israel’s image around the world. In short, the Israeli centre believes that the current discrimination is good enough and there is no need to make it worse or reduce it.
There is no doubt that Kadima was the most influential centre party in Israel from its founding in 2005 to its dissolution in 2015. It tried to offer an alternative to Jewish Israeli voters generally supportive of the Israeli left but without hope of ever seeing peace with the Palestinians; at the same time, it tried to offer a programme for the larger Jewish electorate supportive of the right but which has lost hope in seeing “Greater Israel” come into being. Both voter groups are united in their desire to change the “status quo” in favour of the occupying state.
Kadima first proposed the unilateral strategy embodied in the “disengagement plan” from the Gaza Strip in 2005, claiming that it was the best formula for changing the situation. It became clear that when he founded the party, Ariel Sharon intended to present a third way to the Israeli public and acted according to two principles: rejection of the status quo and rejection of any permanent agreement with the Palestinians.
Sharon’s practical alternative was put forward in a long-term political process that granted Israel the maximum level of security and the minimum level of occupation. Even when Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor in the Kadima leadership as well as the premiership, abandoned his unilateral strategy and was involved in the Annapolis peace process (2007), his actions on the ground did not send any strong signals that he was serious about seeking a lasting peace agreement. He went no further than looking to manage the conflict and the growth of Jewish settlements.
As yet, we have no idea what Benny Gantz’s new centrist party will stand for and what he will promise voters. In that sense, it is conforming to type; it is a party with no founding principles and no clear ideological positions. It will be interesting to see how it does in the polls in April.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arab48 on 9 January 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.