A prerequisite for democratic rule is a realistic chance of power change. The path to power change in Israeli politics, the widely held belief suggests, is passing through the centrist parties. Is being a ‘centrist’ party merely a strategic position on the Left-Right axis? What does this position mean ideologically? Why is power change that comes from the center short-lived? And what does all this entail for Israeli democracy, in the context of the 2019 election?
2019 Israeli election is between PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling party, the Likud, and its recent-emerging contender – Kahol Lavan (Blue-White), which defines itself as a centrist party and is headed by ex-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. While Israeli politics is usually about security issues with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the last decade elections have been fought on identity issues. The 2019 Israeli election is about Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state. But in order to understand the contemporary situation, a brief context of centrist parties in Israel is in order.
From an electoral perspective, the most desirable position on the Left-Right axis is what we call the median voter, the center which is essential for building any coalition, either by the leftwing or the right. Traditionally, there are three major players that position themselves there: first of all, both the catch-all party of the Left (Labor) and the right (Likud) try to argue that they are center-left and center-right parties, respectively, in order to attract middle of the road voters. This is a process we see in all parliamentary systems. The last Netanyahu’s Likud government, however, has implemented extremely right-wing policies, and therefore can no longer be positioned on the center-right, as we shall later see.
Second, in political analysis, the religious and ultra-religious parties were also perceived as centrist parties in the following way: they would usually campaign on religion/state issues, demand through their coalition negotiations ‘specialized’ funds for their respective sector, and would otherwise be considered a loyal partner to any coalition – left or right. Accordingly, analysts considered the national-religious and ultra-religious parties as pivot parties, coalitioning with the higher bidder. However, these parties, during Netanyahu’s terms in office, became his ‘natural partners’ and ideologically moved to the extreme right, as their electoral base has a view of Israel as an ethno-religious judeoucracy, rather than a liberal-democratic society. It is therefore less plausible to characterize these parties as pivot parties of the center.
The third centrist bloc is composed of parties that define themselves as center parties. This goes all the way back to the Dash party of 1977 and includes new parties that emerge on each election year ever since, including Kadima, Sharon’s party that became the ruling party in 2006 and disappeared after two terms, Yesh Atid that has now merged into Kahol Lavan, and Kulanu. These parties are strategically positioned at the center, but what does being a ‘centrist’ party mean? For one, these parties usually campaign on ‘clean politics’ agenda. They present a deep discontent with ‘old politics’ and therefore are characterized by a charismatic leader and a team of people who have established themselves in other arenas – like the army, the free market, civil society or academia. Yet they have a strong anti-politics sentiment. Second, these parties are centered usually around one leader, who is very dominant and controls the list, the program and the coalition negotiations – like Lapid (father and son), Kahlon or Sharon, Olmert or Livni. Third, these parties portray themselves as ‘neither left nor right’ parties. Ideologically, they avoid identifying with either political side, though in practice when in coalition they are of course either left or right. Fourth, they are usually issue-based. Lapid’s Yesh Atid campaigned around the cost of living, and Kahlon’s Kulanu party around housing, for example. Fifth, in terms of the electorate there is a growing part of the population, typically educated middle-classes, who vote consistently for (new) centrist parties. So between a quarter and the third of the Israeli population do not migrate from the left or right to the center and back, but vote loyally to the centrist parties. Finally, their voters usually come from the educated middle-classes. These parties perceive themselves as highly fit-to-rule as they are populated by people who made it in the economy, civil society or local government, and therefore they look to enter a government rather than to sit in parliament and legislate. They are also with little or no loyal base, and therefore, when new issues, new leaders or new parties emerge, their voters will be likely to pass on to the new exiting thing in politics rather than be loyal to their centrist party.
How, if at all, is Gantz’s Kahol Lavan different? Gantz has adopted Sharon’s model of Kadima party rather than the features on a typical centrist party. Sharon had explicitly chosen people from Labor and Likud in order to create what he called ‘the big bang’ of Israeli politics. He did so because he had a national mission: The Hitnatkut, the disengagement from Gaza. Gantz sees his mission in the same light: he took people from both the right (Telem with Moshe Yaalon at its head) and the left (e.g. Michael Bitton, Hili Truper, Avi Nissenkorn). And he formulated a common agenda, which is to recover the Israeli consensus around Israel as Jewish and democratic, restoring the rule of law and protecting the status of the Supreme Court. In other words: national unity is the main message. This agenda is placed against Netanyahu’s rightwing government, which has put forward a ‘divide and rule’ hate politics, which is neo-conservative, nationalist and populist. Therefore, Gantz’s party campaigns on the slogan: ‘there is no more left or right, Israel before everything’.
This is why Israel 2019 election is not just about the allegations against Netanyahu and the court trials, but also about the type of democracy – a liberal vs. illiberal democracy. However, a party can not really be neither left nor right as a ruling party: it is most likely that in terms of striving for peace and negotiations, implementing social welfare and acting towards recovering Israel as a humanist national democracy, Gantz’s party can be classified as a center-left party. However, hoping to move 2-3 mandates from the right to the center-left, the campaign and party manifesto are extremely thin on actual policies. It is clear on one issue: its mission is to replace Netanyahu's regime. And it provides what usually is lacking from the PM's opponents: a security gloss expressed also in a somewhat militaristic campaign, to attract rightwing 'security' voters, on the expense of achieving a historic alliance with the Arab parties. But moving votes from the Right to the Left is the only option for a different government. Whether it wins a majority to create a government is doubtable with today’s polls, but the party hopes to have more votes than the Likud and win a blocking-number of seats that would disable Netanyahu from creating another rightwing government, thus allowing the president to choose Gantz as the first leader to try to compose a coalition. Speaking in national-unity voices, it is most likely that they would offer the Likud, without Netanyahu, a shared term in office to recover Israeli democracy. Whether such agenda would be implemented, we'll know only after the elections.