Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yesh Atid Party

Is There Really an Israeli Center?

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.

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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.

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Israeli Reality Check for Liberal Critics

Israel’s American critics viewed the latest conflict in Gaza as more evidence of how the Jewish state needs to be saved from itself. That is particularly true of Jewish groups like the left-wing lobby J Street whose attacks on the Netanyahu government and support for Obama administration pressure on Israel have continued even as anti-Zionist and pro-BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) efforts have intensified. But the latest opinion poll from Israel illustrates yet again just how out of touch these liberal know-it-alls are with reality as seen by the majority of Israelis.

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Israel’s American critics viewed the latest conflict in Gaza as more evidence of how the Jewish state needs to be saved from itself. That is particularly true of Jewish groups like the left-wing lobby J Street whose attacks on the Netanyahu government and support for Obama administration pressure on Israel have continued even as anti-Zionist and pro-BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) efforts have intensified. But the latest opinion poll from Israel illustrates yet again just how out of touch these liberal know-it-alls are with reality as seen by the majority of Israelis.

A new opinion poll from Israel’s Channel 10 provides sobering results for those who continue to hope that Israelis will listen to them and both push for a new prime minister and resolve to begin leaving the West Bank. While many, if not most Americans, actually believe the press when they call Netanyahu a “hard-liner,” the perception of his conduct at home is very different. Far from convincing Israel to start ceding more territory to the Palestinians, after their 50-day ordeal during the summer as thousands of rockets fell on their heads and a new threat of terror tunnels made them feel even less safe, more Israelis seem inclined to view Netanyahu as not tough enough.

Netanyahu’s personal approval ratings dropped once the fighting ended and many of his countrymen were disappointed with his failure to end the threat from Hamas-run Gaza once and for all. These latest numbers confirm that the big winner if elections were to be held today would be the prime minister’s most strident critic on the right. Even more discouraging for the “save it from itself” crowd is the fact that the right-wing parties as a whole are gaining strength while those on the left are dropping even lower in public esteem.

The Channel 10 poll shows that the public would give Netanyahu’s Likud Party 26 seats in a new Knesset. That’s less than the 31 it got when it ran on a joint ticket in 2013 with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party. But that right-wing rival would get 14, representing a gain of four for the two natural coalition partners. But the big winner would be Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party which has been highly critical of what it considers to be Netanyahu’s timid approach to Gaza and negotiations with the Palestinians. It would get 16 in a new election, an increase of four over their current total.

While these three men are more or less continually at each other’s throats, it must be understood that the combination of the three—which represent the core of any center-right government—would stand at 56, almost enough for them to govern on their own and reminiscent of the old days of Labor Party dominance when the left ruled the country for its first three decades. That would give Netanyahu the option of putting together a right-wing government with the religious parties that would, however fractious its character, dominate the Knesset.

At the same time, the biggest losers would be the parties that Israel’s critics are counting on to form the core of a new “pro-peace” Cabinet. The centrist Yesh Atid Party led by current Finance Minister Yair Lapid is the big loser in the poll, going down to only 8 seats from its current 19. That leaves any potential center-left coalition led by Labor, which went down to 13 from its current 15 seats, hopelessly short of any sort of majority. Even if you added in the seats that may be won by a new party focused on economics led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon to the total of all the left-wing, centrist, and Arab parties, it adds up to only 49. And that is an inconceivable coalition since in all likelihood Kahlon and his supporters would join any Cabinet led by Netanyahu.

What does this mean?

The first conclusion is that although anything can happen in the two or three years between now and the next election, barring some sort of spectacular and currently unforeseen collapse, Netanyahu will almost certainly lead the next Israeli government.

Second, Lapid’s party appears fated to follow that of every other centrist party in Israeli political history. Voters are always hungry for alternatives to the old left and right choices but even though circumstances occasionally thrust a centrist to the fore, they are inevitably, as Lapid has been, marginalized by the continued centrality of war and peace issues on which they cannot compete. Lapid also made the same mistake of all his predecessors (including his father) of joining a government and thus became both tarnished and diminished by the hard choices any Cabinet must make on economics or peace. These poll numbers also lessen Lapid’s leverage in the current budget dispute he’s been waging with Netanyahu.

Third, and most importantly, these numbers reflect the fact that, unlike most liberal Jews–or most Americans for that matter–Israelis have been paying attention to events in the region. They know the continued rule of Hamas over Gaza and the Islamists’ increased popularity among Palestinians at the expense of the supposedly more moderate Fatah and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas renders any idea of withdrawing from the West Bank, as was done in Gaza, an impossibility. No sane Israeli leader would risk turning that far larger and more strategic territory into another Gaza.

This will, no doubt, heighten the frustrations of American left-wingers about Israel. But their anger tells us more about them and their refusal to think seriously about what Palestinians have done and believe than it does about what Israel should do. Israelis want peace as much if not more than American liberals. But they understand that dreams of peace are meaningless to Hamas and Palestinian rejectionists. Those who claim to be pro-Israel as well as pro-peace need to come to terms with the fact that the people who understand their country’s dilemmas far better than they could are still firmly rejecting their advice.

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Can Yair Lapid Survive Success?

The big winner of Tuesday’s election in Israel was undoubtedly journalist Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party appears to have won 19 seats in the Knesset, coming out of nowhere to become the second-largest faction in the country’s parliament. Lapid capitalized on discontent about the cost of living as well as the resentment of Israel’s secular majority against the power of the ultra-Orthodox.

This is a great achievement for Lapid, and it has likely made him the lynchpin of any government organized by Prime Minister Netanyahu. It gives him the ability to name his price for joining the cabinet and he will undoubtedly influence policy on the economy as well as have the chance to thrill his secular supporters by actually helping to change the system by which most Haredim evade the draft. But it needs to be pointed out that although his success is extraordinary every previous such independent winner has crashed the next time they faced the voters. The interesting question to ask about Lapid in the aftermath of his win is whether he can evade the fate of every other secular/centrist party that has shot to the top in the last few decades of Israeli political history.

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The big winner of Tuesday’s election in Israel was undoubtedly journalist Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party appears to have won 19 seats in the Knesset, coming out of nowhere to become the second-largest faction in the country’s parliament. Lapid capitalized on discontent about the cost of living as well as the resentment of Israel’s secular majority against the power of the ultra-Orthodox.

This is a great achievement for Lapid, and it has likely made him the lynchpin of any government organized by Prime Minister Netanyahu. It gives him the ability to name his price for joining the cabinet and he will undoubtedly influence policy on the economy as well as have the chance to thrill his secular supporters by actually helping to change the system by which most Haredim evade the draft. But it needs to be pointed out that although his success is extraordinary every previous such independent winner has crashed the next time they faced the voters. The interesting question to ask about Lapid in the aftermath of his win is whether he can evade the fate of every other secular/centrist party that has shot to the top in the last few decades of Israeli political history.

Starting in 1977 when the Dash Party led by archeologist Yigal Yadin won 15 seats and became part of Menachem Begin’s first government, there have a steady string of such independent centrist groups that won the affection of Israel’s voters. But Dash, like Tzomet in 1992, the Third Way in 1996, the Center Party in 1999, the Shinui Party in 2003 (that won 15 seats under the leadership of Lapid’s father Yosef) and the Pensioners Party in 2006, collapsed at the next election. Each time, the religious parties that were the focus of voter outrage outlasted their would-be tormentors.

The fatal flaw of all these parties was that although they spoke to a desire on the part of Israeli voters to have an alternative to the traditional choices on the left and the right, such groupings inevitably were compromised by a decision to join the new government. Once in the cabinet these parties were able to secure patronage for their followers, but having done so, they could no longer pose as the outsiders looking to hold the establishment accountable. Nor could they maintain the voters’ enthusiasm in a country where war and peace issues are always the most important. And all failed to do the one thing that secular voters have demanded: create a more equitable system of compulsory military service that would no longer exempt the Haredim.

Lapid’s obvious interest in joining the government will leave him open to the charge that he, like his predecessors, is just looking to gain power rather than to stand for principle. Lapid is reportedly urging Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich to join with him in the next government, but she rightly understands that is not the path to future electoral success. The only way to get her once-dominant faction back to the point where it can claim to be one of the country’s two big parties will be to lead the opposition to Netanyahu rather than allow herself to be co-opted by him. That’s exactly the danger that Lapid’s success poses to his party, since if he does join the cabinet no matter how much he is able to influence the course of the government he won’t be able to campaign next time as an agent of change.

The one possible escape for Lapid is the chance that he and Netanyahu will actually be able to pass a new draft law. Doing so will absolve him to some extent from the charge that his party merely cashed in on its victory without accomplishing anything the way all those that came before him did. But even if he does manage to do that, it’s not clear whether it is possible for him to build his party and allow it to maintain its strength while serving as one of Netanyahu’s partners.

Lapid will be able to enjoy playing the kingmaker in the coming days and weeks as negotiations to form the next government unfold. But his real challenge will be trying to ensure that Yesh Atid is not just another one-election wonder.

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