Why Yair Lapid’s Electoral Success Is Not Really a Centrist Victory
Both Israeli and foreign media have repeated the same prevailing narrative about Israel’s election—a narrative in which the Israeli center has returned to full strength and the Israeli right has taken a whipping. Adherents to this line of argument then point out that instead of the clear right-wing majority of 65 or so seats that pre-election polls projected, there’s only 61-59 split favoring the right.
There is a general euphoria among centrist voters who helped Yair Lapid win an unprecedented 19 votes for his new party, Yesh Atid. Some have even been projecting a scenario in which Lapid becomes prime minister at the head of a center-left coalition. The problem is that such a coalition would need the at least tacit support of the eleven Israeli Palestinian members of the Knesset. Lapid himself put an end to this speculation by declaring in no uncertain terms that he would never lead a government that included Haneen Zoabi. Instead of criticizing him for this racist sentiment, most Israelis understand that it would be suicide for an Israeli Jewish politician even to contemplate such an arrangement.
Those like pro-Israel analyst, Walter Russell Mead, writing in The American Interest about the triumph of the center during these elections, have it all wrong (here is another similar report from the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s Jonathan Schnauzer and a similar report from Haaretz’s Ari Shavit). The reason they need to see the election as an affirmation of centrism is that they themselves are embracing a right-wing Israeli political consensus, but would prefer to see themselves as centrists rather than what they are.
But before rebutting this argument, let’s explore the actual results.
How the Election Changed Israel’s Political Landscape
The newly merged Likud-Beitenu faction fared poorly, winning thirty-one seats instead of the forty-plus they’d projected. Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) polled twelve seats instead of the fifteen that earlier surveys had projected. It’s also true that the blatantly Kahanist Otzma L’Yisrael lost all of its three seats.
The Israeli center-left, or so the prevailing wisdom has it, did remarkably well. Meretz was the shining star with its six seats, its largest showing in decades. Labor fared poorly at fifteen seats, when it had been polling at various times near twenty. Further, the center-left that supposedly did so well in the polls is tremendously fragmented. It encompasses five disparate parties with differing agendas, histories and leadership styles. The only thing they agree on is that none will include Palestinians in any coalition they join. The Jewish center-left polls at most forty-eight seats, nowhere near a majority coalition without Palestinian support, as I noted.
Despite this setback the right is in a comfortable position to forge a ruling coalition. The two current hard-right parties together won forty-three seats, a formation far more stable than the center-left parties with their forty-eight seats. Further, those hard-right parties have purged themselves of any vestige of center-right leaders of the past. Gone are the Likud “Princes,” Benny Begin (imagine the heir to Menachem Begin’s political legacy banished from the Likud Party the latter helped found and led as prime minister), Dan Meridor, and Michael Eitan.
They were the Old Guard who’d become musty moderates in the eyes of ideological firebrands—settler extremists like Moshe Feiglin, who takes his place for the first time in the Knesset. This is a man who would be quite satisfied if Israel destroyed the Dome of the Rock and began building the Third Temple. The moderates purged in the Likud primaries were replaced with a remarkably homogenous nationalist extremist cohort.
Bennett’s party is an extension of this development. Remember that Jeremy Gimpel who, at number fourteen on the party list, missed the cutoff to enter the Knesset? He proudly shared his vision with a Christian evangelical audience in Florida, of a Dome of the Rock destroyed and replaced by that same Third Temple envisioned by Feiglin. Further, Bennett’s new Bayit Yehudi is the first major parliamentary faction calling for annexation of portions of the West Bank. Individual members of Knesset from Kahanist parties expressed these views in the past. But never a party with twelve seats.
While many Israelis see Lapid’s election victory as a triumph of the center, that’s not the case. Lapid is not really a man of the center. He’s a former TV show host and celebrity with a smooth personality and no perceptible ideological commitments. He’s barely expressed himself on political issues except in the most general terms.
One of his most important financial benefactors is the American Jewish neocon, Michael Steinhardt, also a major donor to Birthright. He’s quite comfortable with Likud’s politics especially concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, Lapid has stated publicly that he’s willing to enter a rightist coalition. Avigdor Lieberman, who only one election ago was the far-right whipping boy, has promised the new Golden Boy the finance portfolio in the new government. As Lapid has no particular skills or experience in economics-finance, he will likely be overshadowed by the far more experienced Netanyahu (a former finance minister who liberated Israel from its previous social-welfare model, introducing the harsh medicine of free-market capitalism during his term a decade ago). That leaves a centrist hero who risks becoming a prisoner of his rightist coalition partners.
The consensus opinion is that by taking finance, Lapid will be able to implement economic and social reforms demanded by the social justice movement that brought 500,000 Israelis into the streets two summers ago. Those demands still resonate in the minds of many Israelis who’ve been shut out of the boom that has especially benefited a small, narrow entrepreneurial class.
But given the tepid response the ruling Likud coalition showed in the past two years to legislating any of these reforms, there’s absolutely no guarantee Lapid will succeed now. He has nineteen seats, but there are forty-three others to his right in this projected coalition, who owe their seats to Israel’s oligarchy (including the eighteen families which control 80% of Israel’s financial capital). How will he carry them along on his social crusade?
The Integration of Palestinians into Israel’s Center-Left Parties
What will it take to bring a real center-left coalition to power? Practically a revolution. But lest you think I’m being frivolous, hear me out. First, including Israeli Palestinian parties in a ruling coalition should not be ruled out. Any intelligent, ambitious Israeli Jewish politician on the left should see that there is not just a potential governing coalition in such a formula, it could be a permanent majority.
Here’s how you get there. Currently, with just over half Israel’s Palestinians voting, they garner eleven to twelve seats. In a new political regime that embraced their participation and truly shared power with them, that would rise to close to twenty to twenty-five seats.
There is no question that the current center-left Jewish-dominated parties would lose Jewish support in much the same way that the Democratic party in the South was decimated by the passage civil rights legislation of the 1960s. But if those Israeli parties could retain thirty-five to forty of their current forty-eight seats, they’d have a majority together with the Palestinian seats.
But by parsing the political map this way, I think we do Israel’s political future a disservice. It needs not just cosmetic surgery, like asking Jewish parties to sit in a government with Palestinian parties; it needs radical transformation. Parties must stop thinking of themselves in sectarian or factional terms (Mizrahi, National Religious, Haredi, Palestinian, etc.). They must begin thinking of themselves as Israeli rather than Jewish (or Palestinian).
That means the center-left parties must integrate Palestinians into their ranks both in leadership roles and in terms of party platforms. This is precisely what happened within the Democratic Party in the 1960s when, after bruising national convention fights, it began seating African American delegates and delegations. All this led, in the span of 55 years (1954-2008) to an African American president. Dare we dream about an Israel led by a Palestinian prime minister?
The future of Israeli politics, if Israel is ever to become a real democracy, is in the integration of Palestinians (and Jewish ethnic minorities) into mainstream parties, rather than the continued ethnic separatism of parties like Agudah, Shas, Tal, and Balad.
I’m not disparaging these parties, which represent their constituencies as effectively as is possible under the prevailing model. They are important standard bearers for their community. But a Palestinian community whose power is relegated to a political ghetto and never allowed into the halls of power represents a guarantee of continuing Palestinian enfeeblement.
Nor am I calling for the assimilation or dilution of Palestinian cultural or political identity. There will probably always be some political representation in purely Jewish or Palestinian parties. And Palestinians will surely project their interests as an ethnic community even within a larger nonracial party. After all, that’s precisely what African Americans or gays do within the Democratic and Republican parties now.
If this vision can be implemented successfully for Palestinians, there’s no reason that Mizrahim and Orthodox Jews won’t find their own path into the major parties (more fully than they have to date), as long as the parties understand the importance of recruiting these minorities and truly representing their interests in more than token ways (as they do now).
Lest anyone accuse me of being a luftmensch, out of touch with reality, I don’t deny that Israeli politics today is not ready for this formula. A Yair Lapid who announced he was including Haneen Zoabi in his ruling coalition would be dead meat politically.
But change comes from a few leaders with vision who decide to break a political logjam. I can’t say who those leaders are. But an Israel which continues down the current path is doomed to a permanent nationalist right-wing majority and eventual national suicide. One that turns away and embraces real democracy is guaranteed posterity.