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Israel’s Equilibrium

Because of the consistent participation in Israel’s Knesset elections of new, ill-defined, and self-styled “centrist” parties, it can be difficult to accurately apply the labels “left” and “right” until after each election. Nonetheless, yesterday’s Israeli Knesset elections clearly represent a leftward shift. How far left? That remains to be seen. The election, as Evelyn noted, was about domestic issues and not the peace process. This is beneficial for Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike.

But because the resurgent Labor Party–which performed as well as it did because it has learned to downplay Oslo in favor of bread-and-butter issues–has more to gain long-term by staying out of the next governing coalition and regrouping and recruiting some more, the leftward shift will be most clearly felt on issues of religious identity. Simply put, the ultra-Orthodox will be up against something of a secular mandate. But all this will sort itself out in the coming weeks as coalition forming and its attendant horse-trading begins. The more interesting question for now is: Could the liberal American press, which hysterically predicted that the election would create a suicidally fascistic government, have known all along how wrong they were? The answer is yes–they just needed to learn a bit of Israeli history.

Israeli elections often hover around what amounts to an equilibrium. Two mainstream parties–Likud and Labor, historically–usually compete to form either a center-right government or a center-left government. Floating centrist parties come and go, often within one election cycle. Kadima is the exception that proves the rule. It was created by Ariel Sharon just before he was incapacitated. Once it was out of government and led by Tzipi Livni, it remodeled itself as the peace party–its existence as such only made possible by the struggles of Labor. It is no surprise, then, that in yesterday’s election Labor’s surge back to respectability and the emergence of Yair Lapid’s new centrist party nearly wiped Kadima out completely.

The equilibrium includes an Orthodox party, Shas, and in recent years there’s been more of an effort to include specifically secular representation to make up for the fading of the Israeli left. For a couple of election cycles that has been Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, which has pushed for conscription for the ultra-Orthodox, civil marriage, and the decentralization of the Rabbinate’s state authority. This is an important point because for all the media’s complaints of the electorate’s rightward shift, thanks to Lieberman the left had many of its policy preferences championed from within a supposedly right-wing government. Space for a new secular party opened up when Israel Beiteinu merged with Likud prior to this election.

And that gets at a broader problem with the “Israel’s lurch to the right” chorus. Israeli politicians have opinions on an array of issues, both foreign and domestic. The Western left elevates any politician’s opinion on the peace process above all others; Israelis are not so myopic or simplistic. A consensus has formed in Israel about Oslo, the peace process, and Jerusalem. Few politicians gain much success by being far beyond the parameters of that consensus–to the right or left. In recent years, the left has been outside those lines, clinging to the memories and legacy of Oslo and stuck in the mid-1990s. Labor has now emerged from that vacation from reality enough to offer coherent thoughts on domestic policy, and has been rewarded by the electorate for joining the country in the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean the country is anti-peace. It’s simply the hardheaded realism that sustains Israel’s electoral equilibrium. The peace process has a way of crowding out everything else–meetings, summits, negotiations, visits to and from every busybody who wants a piece of the action, and the parade of special envoys convinced they’re Kissinger abound. And that leaves no time or energy or political capital–and in Israel, everything takes political capital–to attend to domestic reforms.

The Western press may sneer at an election that was more about the price of cottage cheese than the future of the two-state solution, but that’s because they don’t for one second put themselves in Israelis’ shoes and walk a mile or two. Israelis are not pieces on a chessboard, and yes, the price of cottage cheese makes a difference (though that was really just a stand-in for a general sense of concern over certain household economic trends).

The ability to compartmentalize the issues and leave the peace process in its box every so often is essential for Israel. Liberal journalists don’t seem to have this ability to compartmentalize and thus they cannot see past Oslo. Call it the triumph of Haaretz over experience–the leftist press lives in its own world. The irony of all this is that only by discarding liberal editorial boards’ peace process fantasies has the Israeli left been able to rebound back from relative obscurity. You can be inside the consensus sustained by Israel’s equilibrium or you can have an obsessive focus on the peace process, but not both–as yesterday’s election demonstrated once again.


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