Pinchas Landau argues that the emergence of the new centrist party ‘Blue and White’ as the main rival to Netanyahu’s Likud highlights the gulf between Israel and the (crumbling) democracies of the West.
The (Western) Centre cannot hold
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
That line, from Yeats’ gloomy, fearful yet enigmatic 1919 poem has, in recent years, been among the most oft-quoted from the entire corpus of English-language poetry. And justifiably so, because it catches in a few sparse words the main themes of social and political distress that currently assail the rich and formerly stable countries of the West, namely Western Europe, North America and those Pacific Rim nations that have succeeded in joining the elite grouping.
In one after another of these countries, things have fallen and/or are falling apart, especially in the largest and hence most important Western countries: the US, UK and France. These ‘things’ include the key elements of the socio-economic fabric, namely law and order, steady jobs, wages and pensions and, perhaps above all, the family.
The Centre – the political Centre, that is – has crumbled in country after country. In this sad process, it is the UK that, incredibly but undeniably, has carved out for itself pride of place. The country that developed the institution of parliament and the concept of constitutional government; that was regarded as the paragon of stable government, thanks to a two-party system that enabled and practiced the orderly transfer of power; whose professional civil service was the exemplar of integrating change with continuity; that ‘sceptered isle’ – is now a septic sore, poisoned and seemingly bent on .
On a personal note: as a born Brit, I make a special effort to keep up with developments at Westminster and even to comprehend them. The latter hope seems, alas, to be forlorn. Of course I bypass the mainstream media, which is irremediably biased to one side or the other. Instead I ask many people – mostly natives, some foreigners now living in London – only to find that the natives have mostly given up the struggle to work out what their country’s leadership is doing, and why ‘Britain’s two big parties are in a race to see which can fall apart fastest,’ as The Economist’s Bagehot column recently put it. As for the foreigners, they have totally tuned out: some have already left, others see no choice but to do so soon.
In practice, I conduct this ‘poll’ only in London, capital of the ‘Remain’ part of the ‘United’ Kingdom. Beyond, on all sides, lie stretches of euro-sceptic, euro-septic England, where the casualties from Margaret Thatcher’s remaking of Britain in the 1980s were left to fester for decades – only to seize the opportunity presented by the Brexit referendum to gain their revenge on the ‘Establishment’ that turned its back on them. The Brexit debacle has poisoned the body politic, whilst achieving nothing – unless, that is, delivering the two main parties respectively into the hands of the European Research Group and the Corbynistas counts as an achievement.
While the case of Britain is arguably the most extreme example of the collapse of the political Centre in a leading democratic country, it is far from unique. On the contrary: across the pond, the US is locked into self-imposed governmental paralysis and dysfunction, against a background of increasingly violent swings of the political pendulum. The outlook for 2020 is simply much more of the same.
Meanwhile, across the Channel in Continental Europe, the restoration or achievement of democracy in the post-1945 and post-1990 eras is now in real and present danger. The stunning victories of Macron’s new centrist movement had seemed to offer hope that the extremist forces in France could be held off or even defeated. But that hope has dissipated, exposing the fear that it is simply too late to change France’s course; Italy, even more than France, has decided that the la-la-land lifestyle that it demands for itself is what Europe must agree to provide for it; and Germany, on which France, Italy and the rest of Europe unwillingly and uncomfortably lean, has apparently had enough of the whole band of ingrates.
In all of these countries, as well as in many smaller ones, deep-seated and long-festering social and economic problems, aggravated by prolonged policy blunders, have undermined and ultimately destroyed the political structure that held sway through the post-war era. In one country after another, the Centre has failed to hold as more extreme ideas, parties and policies have gathered strength. The 20th century division of ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ has been rendered obsolete by the emergence of forces which, despite being labelled ‘far-Right’ and ‘far-Left,’ actually have far more in common in their joint opposition to the old parties that comprise the ‘Establishment’, than is implied by continued use of misleading and outdated nomenclature.
The rise of the Israeli Centre
Yet the decline of democracy is not universal. There is a country on a very different political trajectory. True, it is reviled by most Western intellectuals, especially in the ‘solid’ democracies of Western Europe – most of which have yet to celebrate a full century of free speech and fair and free elections. A senior diplomatic representative of the highly-respected nation-state that gave the world ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ – not to mention the first, second, third, fourth and fifth republics, all in less than two centuries – not long ago called it “that shitty little country”.
But, while Paris burns and France tears itself apart, Israel – and especially the Israeli political system – is healthy and solid, reflecting the healthy growth of the society which it represents and the economy which it oversees.
This statement will be widely rejected as ridiculous and even nonsensical in ‘enlightened’ circles in the Western democracies mentioned above. Yet the evidence supporting is plain for all to see – except for those so blinded by pre-conceived ideas as to be impervious to what is happening in front of their very eyes.
The key items of evidence are these:
- The current election campaign – like most of its predecessors – is focused on the political Centre.
- For the umpteenth (probably tenth, but one loses count) time in the last 42 years and the third time this decade, the new and rising force in Israeli politics is a self-proclaimed centrist party.
- The extremist parties (on both sides of the commonly-defined political spectrum) are weakening and the Centre is strengthening.
And, in more general terms:
- In order to win — meaning to emerge as a large party; and then to attract the support of sufficient Knesset members to persuade the president to give that party a mandate to form a government; and then actually to construct a stable coalition that can govern for several years – a party has to win a large chunk of the centre ground.
- The dynamics of coalition government, in which several smaller, ideologically ‘purer’ / more extreme, or single-issue parties – which often pull in different or even opposed directions – are subordinate to a dominant large party, tend to push that large party towards a more pragmatic, moderate position, a.k.a. the Centre.
This is not the picture of the domestic electoral process presented by the Israeli media. Liberal papers and pundits bewail the demise of the old centre-Left and left-wing parties, while cheering the failures of the Right. Their (fewer) right-wing peers do the same, but in reverse. Both sides ignore – out of contempt, one suspects – the remarkably stubborn insistence of the Israeli electorate to keep demanding centrist candidates and parties and giving these its support. No matter how many times these parties fail to deliver on their promises, the public – disappointed but not deterred – keep coming back for more.
The result is that in Israel, the Centre holds and only the Centre holds power. Netanyahu’s decade in office has been characterised by a relentless effort to move – sometimes to drag – Likud towards the (political, socio-economic, security and foreign affairs) centre, irrespective of his own or the party’s ideological preferences, so that it can retain power. Most of Likud’s leadership and local activists think, and would like to act, more ‘right-wing’ — as does Netanyahu himself, in all likelihood. But he doesn’t and they go along with his decisions, because moving too far from the centre would cause them to lose enough votes that they would lose power – and all the attendant benefits of holding power.
Examples of this self-discipline/ political realism/ pragmatism/ expedience/ ideological backsliding/ treachery (choose the description that suits your view) are legion, but two outstanding ones will suffice.
First, in the summer of 2011, in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ that rocked the region earlier that year, Israel was swept by a wave of unrest – the ‘social protest’ movement. The accepted wisdom in the Israeli media is that this movement generated much sound and fury but achieved nothing. The reality is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from his coalition with Labor (yes, really, in the current decade …), jettisoned his signature policy of serial cuts in both taxes and government spending, whose legislative passage he had overseen. Nor was this a transient or tactical move. Thenceforth and over the subsequent seven years, fiscal policy has fundamentally changed course, from a declining trajectory (not absolutely, but relatively, in terms of GDP) to a rising one.
Second, one year ago, in spring 2018, the bon mot among military commentators was that ‘another round’ of fighting against Hamas in and around the Gaza Strip during the coming summer was ‘inevitable’. Foreign media swallowed this up because of the almost universal belief that Netanyahu is a warmonger, always looking for an opportunity to bash Hamas and other entities he regards as sworn enemies of Israel. The reality, once again, is the opposite. Ignoring demands for a more aggressive policy from his right-wing coalition partners, notably Naftali Bennett (then Jewish Home) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) – and despite massive pressure, publicly and via Likud activists, on the part of the Israeli population living near the Gaza Strip – Netanyahu threw his weight behind the army and intelligence consensus not to swallow Hamas’ bait, but rather to refrain from large-scale military activity. Nor was 2018 exceptional in this context: on the contrary, as he demonstrated in summer 2014 (‘Operation Protective Edge’) and subsequently, Netanyahu has consistently been opposed to large-scale ground incursions on the Gaza front – and has thus consistently ignored the clamour of his political ‘base’.
In other words, in ‘signature’ issues in both economic and security policy, Netanyahu has chosen practical political necessities over ideological preferences. In these and other cases, he did so because of a ‘big picture’ orientation: better to lose a battle, even an important one, than to endanger Likud’s hold on power and thereby lose the war. And the way to lose the war would be by losing sufficient votes in the centre of Israeli politics that Likud’s dominance would be compromised – because any extra votes garnered on the right could not cover that loss.
These examples, or others, do not represent a paean of praise for Netanyahu – each specific policy decision can be argued for or against – except in one respect, in which even his fiercest opponents do not disagree. He is a master politician, in a different league from the rest of the current field and for whom the platoon of ex-generals in the new Blue and White party, new recruits in the political arena, are no match.
Thus, it is certainly arguable – as many old-guard Likud grandees, such as Benny Begin and Ruby Rivlin, have cogently claimed – that Netanyahu’s moral compass has been warped, so that he says and does things today he would never have considered in his youth. For his part, Netanyahu has clearly convinced himself that only he is fit to be premier – so that others, including former chiefs of staff, are a danger to the country’s well-being.
It is also perfectly plausible to claim, as many commentators do, that the current election boils down to a vote for or against this belief of Netanyahu in himself and of others in Netanyahu.
But none of that changes the fact that the election will be won and lost in the centre ground, and it is there that the main battle is taking place – as it should, in a healthy democracy and as it almost always does in Israel. Thus to state the obvious fact that Netanyahu is the dominant figure in Israeli politics in the last decade is also to implicitly state that this is due to his conquest and continuing control of the centre-Right, so that the only threats to him and Likud have come from its Left – which, thanks to the remorseless decline of Labor, has come to mean the Centre, rather than the centre-Left.
The Israeli centre’s evolution
Ariel Sharon’s creation of Kadima, hewn primarily out of Likud, was the first and probably the greatest threat Likud faced – and Netanyahu’s rebuilding of the party after that trauma must rank as an outstanding political achievement. But the ultimate failure of Kadima only seems to have spurred additional attempts to wrest control of the Centre from Likud.
Yair Lapid tried to do so via Yesh Atid, a more genuinely centrist entity than his late father’s Shinui party. Despite winning an extraordinary 19 seats in its debut Knesset appearance, Yesh Atid failed in its primary goal of defeating Likud/ Netanyahu – but, unlike Shinui, it has managed to develop into a proper political party, with ‘grass roots’. This has enabled it to survive an entire cycle of electoral success and failure and to re-emerge, via a merger with the newest ‘new boy on the block’, as a more plausible and hence greater threat in 2019 than it was – or could have been – in 2013.
The ‘new boy’ is, of course, Benny Gantz – who, with his fellow ex-generals Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi, seem to be following much of Lapid’s copybook from 2013. But they are also drawing from a much longer tradition of ex-generals seeking to win power by conquering the political Centre – a tradition that stretches back at least as far as Yigael Yadin’s ‘Party for Democratic Change’ in 1977 and perhaps even to Moshe Dayan’s link-up with Ben-Gurion in ‘Rafi’ in 1965.
Lapid in 2013, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu in 2015 and now Gantz have all caused Likud to move toward the Centre, as Netanyahu refined a serially-successful electoral strategy: Likud could afford to lose right-wing votes to parties to the right of Likud, because these parties had no option but to remain in his ‘camp’ and hence under his dominion – whereas votes lost to the Centre would threaten his hold on power.
This understanding explains – but surely does not excuse – one of Netanyahu’s most cynical moves ever. Faced with the implosion of the religious-right voting bloc following the decamping of Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from Jewish Home, Netanyahu virtually imposed on the hapless new leaders of Jewish Home and its even more right-wing sister party, National Union, a merger with the Kahanist grouping Jewish Power – hitherto a pariah even among the mainstream religious-right parties.
Netanyahu calculation is clear and cold. While this election will be determined by votes for parties cast at the polls, achieving power will be determined by which of the two large parties can muster 61 Knesset members to recommend its leader to the president. In other words, Likud could lose to Blue and White, but Netanyahu could still win the mandate to form a coalition – so long as there are sufficient parties to Likud’s right which feel obliged to back Netanyahu over Gantz.
It therefore follows that no right-wing votes may be allowed to go to waste – as might happen if the religious-right parties were to run separately and one or more of them would fail to cross the threshold for Knesset representation (3.25 per cent of the vote). Therefore, the pariahs of Jewish Power must be allowed into the camp, to maximise the total right-wing vote – leaving Likud free to fight the main battle in the Centre.
Yet however repulsive Jewish Power may be to the vast majority of Jewish voters, and hence however reprehensible Netanyahu’s tactics in using it for his ends, the clamour over this development has succeeded in obscuring several remarkable features of this election and, by extension, of the state of Israeli politics – and how different this is to the political scene in the US, UK, France et al.
- The record shows that extremist parties don’t get into the Knesset easily, if at all. Their votes are usually lost.
- The reason for that is that these parties have very small constituencies.
- The reason is NOT because they are banned from running. On the contrary, the Israeli socio-political system allows and, in some respects, encourages extremist parties to run. It rarely and only reluctantly bans parties.
This pragmatic attitude has deep roots, as discussed in Shany Mor’s excellent recent article, and which is best – if simply and crudely – summarised in LBJ’s comment about J Edgar Hoover: ‘It’s probably better to have the SOB inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’.
The triumph of pragmatic centrism in Israel is not surprising, if and when you stop to think about it. For a country that faces enormous challenges in so many spheres, common sense – as well as long experience – says that only a pragmatic centrist government can deliver both external security and internal stability via prosperity. Not only can the Centre hold, but it must – so it will.