With elections in full swing, centrists feel the squeeze

First week of campaigning ends with dramatic shift — a reinvigorated Israeli left, a self-confident ‘national camp’ on the right, and a struggling center

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (left) with Hatnua head Tzipi Livni at the Knesset in 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (left) with Hatnua head Tzipi Livni at the Knesset in 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Likud, Israel’s ruling party for six consecutive years, has found its enemy.

“The left united us!” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Thursday to a room full of journalists and Likud activists in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu was elated, triumphant. He had won a key vote in his own Likud party’s central committee the day before that had pushed the party’s primaries up by one week, to December 31, a small change but a critical one that made it harder for potential primary challengers to Netanyahu to organize an effective campaign to unseat him.

After the results of the vote were announced, perhaps the greatest threat to Netanyahu’s continued rule of the Likud, the popular former cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar, announced he would not challenge the prime minister for the party leadership.

All of which makes Netanyahu’s declaration a perplexing one. The party machine had united behind him in a landslide Central Committee vote of 1,567 to 835 — that part is true. Yet it had done so against other Likud challengers, not “the left.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 11, 2014. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 11, 2014. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

But Netanyahu wasn’t fazed.

“Likud members understood what many citizens in Israel have seen in recent days,” he explained, “[that there is] an immense public media campaign, a public campaign almost without precedent in its breadth and intensity, that supports and advances any politician and any party that opposes a Likud government under my leadership. This campaign has one clear goal: to transfer power to the left camp, to hand over to the left the pivotal decisions on national security, on Israel’s economy, on Israel’s future.”

Faced with this looming danger, he argued, “Likud members gave a decisive answer” in advancing the date of the primaries. “And I expect to see a similarly decisive answer in the primaries and in the elections.”

A Likud Central Committee member casts his vote in a ballot for early primary elections, in Jerusalem, December 10, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A Likud Central Committee member casts his vote in a ballot for early primary elections, in Jerusalem, December 10, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s been a busy and clarifying week for the coming election campaign.

By announcing its union with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, the Labor Party on Tuesday made its most serious foray into the political center in a generation.

As the left changes its tone in search of new audiences and an end to over a decade of political irrelevance — Labor leaders say they are simply “rediscovering” the party’s pre-Second Intifada pragmatism under the likes of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak — the right, too, has returned with gusto to the campaigns of yesteryear.

And that means, first and foremost, a return to campaigning against the blinkered “left” and its champions in Israel’s partisan media.

Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home announced this week a flash membership drive. Nearly every poll shows the Orthodox-nationalist party rising from its current 12 seats to 15 or more. Party leaders believe they can capitalize on this popularity to expand the party’s ranks and membership dues.

And so the party’s advertising arm went to work crafting a slogan for the drive. As the political consultant Yair Paz noted, it wasn’t original: “A large Jewish Home / to face the entire left.” (The Hebrew sounds better because it rhymes: Bayit Yehudi gadol / mul kol hasmol.”)

As Paz noted on Facebook (Hebrew link), the phrase was adapted from the Likud’s 1992 election slogan: “One large Likud / to face the entire left.”

מישהו שר את זה קודם….

Posted by Yair Paz on Tuesday, December 9, 2014

In that election, the left was a powerful, cohesive political camp under Rabin — and it won. Today’s left is hardly where it was in 1992. Its chances of winning in March remain small. But they have improved enough in recent days to make a right-wing campaign against the left seem plausible.

The center falters

It’s been over a decade since an Israeli election was defined by this left-right contest. Broken by the Second Intifada, Israel’s left largely stood on the sidelines in the elections of 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2013 as voters oscillated between a security-minded center led by former Likud politicians (Kadima under Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni), and the Likud itself under Netanyahu.

Israeli politics were, in effect, a contest between two halves of the Likud: its centrists and its rightists. But now the old left-right architecture may be snapping back into place. This is reflected in polling that surrounded the announcements in recent days of an alliance between Labor’s Herzog and Hatnua’s Livni.

In a Channel 2 poll this week, Labor now competes with Likud for largest party, coming in at 24 seats to Likud’s 23 — an unthinkable result as recently as two weeks ago. In a Knesset Channel poll Wednesday that asked who was most “fit” to be prime minister among the seven leading party chiefs, Netanyahu leads with 26%, but Herzog, who has long lagged behind at 15% and even 12%, is now a close runner-up with 23%. (Next in line are Bennett at 13% and Livni at 6%.)

Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni at a press conference with Hatnua members on December 12, 2014. (Flash90)
Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni at a press conference with Hatnua members on December 12, 2014. (Flash90)

This reshaping of the race is taking a dire toll on the once-dominant political center. Livni has gone to Labor. Former Likud cabinet minister Moshe Kahlon, who polls at 9-10 seats for his new Kulanu party, is seen by Likud as one of their own — even as he insists he is not wedded to a Likud coalition.

Asked why Likud didn’t seem to be campaigning against Kahlon despite the fact that the popular ex-Likudnik is expected to draw votes away from the ruling party, a Likud source had this to say this week: “Why would we campaign against him? We want him to win. Sure, he takes two seats from Likud. But he takes five away from Lapid and a couple more from Shas, and in the end he will bring those seats into the Likud’s coalition.”

Whether explicitly or implicitly, the center is cleaving along the new left-right axis.

And caught in the middle, shut out of a center-left union by the Herzog-Livni alliance and disliked by the right that blames him for bringing down the outgoing government, stands the last great defender of the political middle ground: Yair Lapid.

The return of Ariel Sharon

As Labor seeks to reclaim a centrist identity and the right returns to its traditional, beloved battle against a looming left-wing nemesis, Lapid is engaged in his own game of political resurrection. He is bringing back to life the arguments and rhetoric of the most popular centrist (at least in his final years) that Israel has ever known — Ariel Sharon.

At a Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference this week, Lapid offered a decidedly Sharon-esque approach to the left-right divide.

“For too long security issues in our country have been the subject of a debate between two mistakes,” he told the assembled diplomats and journalists. “The left is wrong for blaming only Israel for the failure of the negotiations, naively assuming, despite all the evidence, that peace is easy to achieve if only we say ‘yes’ to the Palestinians. The right, on the other hand, wrongly believes that no agreement is worthwhile and we are better off doing nothing.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at a conference at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem on December 11, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at a conference at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem on December 11, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The solution, he explained, is an imperfect but necessary “separation…. The Israelis and the Palestinians need to separate from one another.”

In his speech, Lapid touched on every major argument made by Sharon in his 2003 announcement of the “Disengagement Plan” at that year’s Herzliya Conference. The similarity is striking.

Sharon: “The Disengagement Plan is a security measure and not a political one. The steps which will be taken will not change the political reality between Israel and the Palestinians…. Rather, it is a step Israel will take in the absence of any other option, in order to improve its security…. The Disengagement Plan will include the redeployment of IDF forces along new security lines and a change in the deployment of settlements, which will reduce as much as possible the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population.”

Lapid: “We need to ensure there is a clear border between us and them, a geographic border, a demographic border, a secured border which we can defend. We’re not talking about peace — certainly not for the first few years — but a solid agreement which will lead to a clear separation between two people who can’t live together in the same land…. Give us ten years of living separately and securely and then we can talk about trust.”

Sharon: “The unilateral steps which Israel will take in the framework of the Disengagement Plan will be fully coordinated with the United States. We must not harm our strategic coordination with the United States.”

Lapid: “We won’t be able to undertake a process like this without the support of our friends in the world, first and foremost the United States. Our relations with the US require rehabilitation after Netanyahu.”

Ariel Sharon, right, and Mahmoud Abbas in 2003 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Ariel Sharon, right, and Mahmoud Abbas in 2003 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Sharon: Israel must be “a country whose economy is adapted to the advanced global market of the 21st century, where the [gross domestic] product per capita crosses the $20,000 line and is equal to that of most developed European countries…. The process of disengagement will lead to an improvement in the quality of life, and will help strengthen the Israeli economy.”

Lapid: “Separating from the Palestinians will jumpstart the Israeli economy and allow us to quickly reach a GDP per [capita] of almost $50,000…. Israelis will begin to feel the economic importance of such an arrangement.”

Lapid’s strategy is fraught with danger. The Gaza withdrawal was relatively popular in 2005, when an Israeli public that had come to distrust Palestinian intentions was nevertheless eager to detach from its daily engagement with an opponent most Israelis viewed as irredeemably extremist and dysfunctional. Sharon’s hard-nosed unilateralism appealed to many, so much so that even in the wake of the Gaza withdrawal, in early 2006, Israelis elected Sharon’s unpopular successor Ehud Olmert in an election viewed by many as a referendum on the previous year’s disengagement. Indeed, Olmert was elected after explicitly promising during the campaign that he would carry out a similar withdrawal in the West Bank.

But just two months after his swearing-in in March 2006, Olmert found himself embroiled in a bitter war in both Gaza and Lebanon — the two fronts from which the IDF had most recently withdrawn. That brief period, March to June 2006, marks the closest Israel has ever come to a major withdrawal from the West Bank. And the wars of that summer are seared in the consciousness of Israelis as a warning about the incapacity of Palestinian or Arab politics to reciprocate an Israeli withdrawal with peace. In both cases, an Israeli pullout resulted not in nation-building and peacemaking, but in a takeover of the abandoned territory by the sort of non-state Islamist groups that increasingly drive regional politics.

Acutely conscious of this bitter memory — a memory that more than any other factor is responsible for the continued political dominance of the peace-skeptic Netanyahu — Lapid explained on Thursday why his separation would end differently.

“Israel has been damaged before by deals which have been broken…. We must not ignore all that,” he emphasized. “Another round of bilateral talks won’t be different from the previous ones. The geography is the same geography, the fears are the same fears, the history the same history. What we need to change isn’t what we talk about, but who we’re talking with.”

His plan: Just as Egypt can help secure Gaza and Sinai, and Jordan wields some influence over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, so too “we should turn to the Arab League” to negotiate a broader “regional agreement and a separation from the Palestinians.”

Arab foreign ministers meet at the Arab League building in Cairo, Egypt, July 2014. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)
Arab foreign ministers meet at the Arab League building in Cairo, Egypt, July 2014. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

Lapid frames his regional peace strategy as a response to the alleged diplomatic failings of Netanyahu. “It is amazing that having sat with the prime minister as a member of the security cabinet for nearly two years, I still cannot describe his plan for our future security,” he told the conference.

But this is a hard case to make, partly because Netanyahu articulated an almost identical strategy as recently as October.

In fact, Lapid’s new peace policy is a political assault on the burgeoning center-left. Herzog’s star is rising, and Labor’s poll numbers are improving. Lapid is now responding by making his own left-ward foray. Where Livni and Herzog emphasize their dovish credentials and opposition to Likud’s “extremism,” Lapid is working hard to emphasize his hard-nosed skepticism, arguing to the jaded but essentially dovish center-left that this skepticism makes him a better peacemaker.

Peace through skepticism — it’s a strategy that worked wonders for Sharon, giving the grizzled old general in the 2003 elections the largest showing of any party in a decade: 38 seats, an almost inconceivable number in today’s fractured electorate.

To be sure, Lapid’s campaign is likely to focus on domestic matters. His party already has a few remarkable achievements to its credit, including a universal draft bill and reforms of the state rabbinate that would probably have been impossible in a government without Yesh Atid. But the abrupt fall of the coalition two weeks ago, before the passage of the 2015 state budget, meant that his major economic initiatives — lowering the cost of living was his most salient and popular election promise in 2013 — are now shelved, possibly for good.

Lacking these achievements, and finding himself in an election campaign that, thanks to Herzog and Livni, appears set to deal seriously with the Palestinian issue for the first time in years, Lapid is doubling down and betting his political future on an explicitly centrist identity.

The Israeli voter is fickle. Kadima went from 28 seats to 2 in four short years. Lapid’s Yesh Atid came out of nowhere to win 19, but now polls at half that barely two years later. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself presided over a 12-seat Likud as recently as 2006, while Labor jumped 10 seats in some polls just for acquiring Livni, who herself polls at barely three.

This ballot-box reality drives much of the chaos that has characterized Israeli politics in recent years, and led to the rise of a personality-centered politics that for many Israelis replaced the ideologically-driven political identities of the past.

These are early days, but it is possible that this cleaving of the center and reemergence of distinct left and right blocs in the first week of the campaign signal a kind of restoration of the old politics, of a more decisive electorate, and even, unexpectedly, of the ghosts of past political heroes.

With his centrist gambit, Herzog hopes to build the Labor party of Yitzhak Rabin. With his separation plan, Lapid hopes to repeat the achievements of Ariel Sharon. And Netanyahu, now running for his fourth term as prime minister, will surely be perfectly happy if he simply manages to pull another Netanyahu.

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