Today, the latest new Israeli political party showcased their leading members as part of the kickoff to the campaign for the country’s Knesset election in March. The Kulanu (“all of us”) Party revolves around the personality of former Likud Cabinet member Moshe Kahlon who seemed to part amicably from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his old party before going into business for himself. Some international observers have tried to interpret Kulanu’s rise as somehow symptomatic of general dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s policies. But Kahlon’s gambit has nothing to do with the issues of war and peace that concern the world and around which Israeli politics revolves. While the party’s prioritization of social issues ought to net them a strong showing in the voting, any expectation that its success will demonstrate the existence of a viable political Israeli center are bound to be disappointed.
Kahlon’s party seems to be a conglomeration of largely non-ideological activists who are united behind a banner of commitment to social issues in a country where the left-right divide on how to deal with the conflict with the Palestinians is still the primary concern. But rather than something new, those unfamiliar with Israel’s history need to be told that such parties have been a staple of the country’s politics since 1977 when the first such centrist party burst upon the scene. Since then the pattern is familiar. A centrist party led by a famous personality campaigns as an alternative to the leading parties of the right and left and usually does well in its first election. In the last Knesset vote in 2013, the Yesh Atid Party led by journalist Yair Lapid (whose father Tommy had led a different centrist party to a similar good showing a decade earlier) made a huge splash with a social justice platform and won 19 seats, the second highest total after Likud.
But like all of its predecessors, Yesh Atid appears to be a one-hit wonder. Compromised by its participation in the government, it quickly lost the glow of newness as well as its standing as the voice of a protest movement. Lapid’s party’s purpose was revealed to be primarily about the ambition of its founder and the ability of some of its leading members to gain government posts. That’s why it appears on its way to losing half of its strength in March. No one would be surprised if it disappeared altogether in a few years, as have all of the previous centrist groups.
Kahlon seems to be a wiser political player than Lapid and not just because he earned his celebrity by a successful stint in Netanyahu’s Cabinet. Unlike Lapid, Kahlon isn’t trying to be prime minister or the harbinger of a transformation of the Israeli political landscape. He has said his only goal is the Finance Ministry and it’s likely that either Likud or Labor will give it to him in the next government.
Moreover, he’s also making clear that while he is critical of Netanyahu, there’s not a shekel’s worth of difference between their positions on the peace process. Kahlon said his position is that he is in favor of any agreement that “would strengthen Israel,” an anodyne stance that means nothing. He backs the idea of peace with the Palestinians but said “right now there is no partner and no one to talk to on the other side” as well as saying that any deal would have to leave Israel in control of all of Jerusalem. This places him very much on the prime minister’s side on the key questions that divide his government from the positions enunciated by President Obama and the United States.
Can Kahlon and Kulanu ultimately succeed where every other Israeli centrist party failed and grow from its initial success and become the focus for genuine change? Nothing is impossible, but everything we know about the dynamics of the country’s politics tells us that it won’t happen. No matter how principled his followers seem now, they’ll be perceived differently once they are in office. The same applies to Kahlon, who became something of hero for his work in lowering cell phone rates when he served in the previous government. Once he is tainted with participation in a government led by someone else, he won’t be the successful rebel anymore.
In a normal country where economic issues dictate the outcome of elections, one of the country’s two main groupings would likely embrace social justice as their focus. But so long as the Arab and Muslim war on Israel’s existence continues—which is to say for the foreseeable future—parties like Kulanu will come and go with regularity. There is no real center in Israeli politics. Indeed, it can be argued that at this point it is Netanyahu and Likud that represent the center of the country’s divisive politics. Depending on how well he does, Kahlon may help keep Netanyahu in power or make a deal with Isaac Herzog and Labor. But no matter which side he picks, no one should imagine that his likely short-lived success will mean much in the long run.