In politics, on most issues, there is a left, a right and a center. And in most countries, at most times, the majority of the people are in the center. This is where the votes are and where aspirant politicians have to aim much of their agenda. Case in point: the recent US elections. An incumbent President, presiding over a faltering economy, won re-election in large part because his opponent was seen as being too far out on the right on a number of issues. To stay with the American example, in 1992, after three consecutive Presidential election victories for the Republicans, Bill Clinton won back the White House for the Democrats by deliberately and demonstrably moving the party from the left towards the center.
On the major fault line in Israeli politics, the question of the conflict with the Palestinians, there is now a discernible and ever-expanding middle ground. The right traditionally hold that there is room for only one state west of the Jordan River – Israel – and that the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, as part of the Jewish historical/religious birthright, must never to be relinquished.
The left sees Israel’s continued control of the West Bank through the lens of the occupation of its Palestinian residents. The primary leftist claim against Israeli policy in the West Bank is that it has, intentionally or not, created a situation of discrimination against, and disempowerment of, the majority population of the West Bank on the grounds of their ethnic or national identity. An essentially colonialist reality that is morally untenable for a democratic country.
The centrist majority in Israel is first and foremost pragmatic. Centrists may agree with right-wingers that Israel has a right to the biblical lands east of the Green Line, but they are also concerned about what holding onto it indefinitely will do to Israel’s democratic character. If you look at the most prominent travelers from the right to the center in recent years – think Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Dan Meridor – they did not abandon their ideological belief in the justice of the Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria, but they accepted the notion that, if Israel wanted to remain both Jewish and democratic, it could not remain in control of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in those biblical lands.
Note though, their concern is that keeping hold of the land is bad for Israel. Kadima came to power in 2006 on a platform of withdrawing from most of the West Bank – unilaterally if necessary. But it did not win the plurality of votes by invoking the plight of the Palestinians. Centrists voted en masse for Kadima because, at that time, they perceived that the greatest threat to Israel was demography, and that Israel needed to separate, formally and permanently from the Palestinians as soon as possible. In that election, the Likud, wedded to a rightist rejection of any territorial withdrawal, won a meager 12 Knesset seats, its lowest showing since Menachem Begin first brought the right to power in 1977.
By the time the next election arrived, three years of rocket fire from Gaza – following Israel’s withdrawal of course – and seeming stalemate in negotiations with the Palestinians, there was greater willingness to hear Netanyahu’s more hawkish message. He had also learned not to pitch the Likud as outright rejectionists of a two-state solution, but as skeptical realists, driven above all by security concerns.
Israeli opinion polls have consistently shown that while 60-70 percent of Israelis support the principle of a two-state solution and the land-for-peace formula; a similar percentage also believe that, in the event of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the territory would become a launching-pad for missiles against Israeli civilians, following the precedent of Gaza. As the writer Yossi Klein Halevi posits it, Israelis live with the unpalatable reality that while we need to withdraw from (most of) the West Bank in order to remain a Jewish and democratic state; that withdrawal would most likely lead to the entire country being under rocket fire from Islamist terrorists.
The Likud has become the most popular party by appealing to Israeli centrists, presenting a pragmatic acceptance of the need for eventual territorial compromise coupled with a clearly articulated wariness of Palestinian intentions and repeated reminders that Israel’s security concerns will necessarily affect both the borders, and certain limitations on the sovereignty, of the putative Palestinian state.
It remains to be seen how many centrist voters will be turned off the Likud by its two-step move further to the right: merging with the populist Yisrael Beiteinu, and then voting in a list of prospective MKs that appears to signal the abandonment of the party’s liberal-democratic tradition.
What does seem likely however is that the recent conflict with Hamas will move some ideological leftists towards a more pragmatic centrist position. I am specifically thinking about the effect of, for the first time, rockets fired at the two largest Israeli population centers, and most important cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Up until two weeks ago, most residents of Jerusalem and of the greater Tel Aviv area came to the debate on the issue of Israeli territorial compromise with no direct experience of the security consequences of Israeli withdrawal. The Qassams from Gaza were hitting the south. The Katyushas from Lebanon hit the north.
When the siren sounded in Jerusalem that Friday night, I rushed to the bomb shelter of our building with my wife, carrying our three-month old baby in my arms. I suspect I am not the only Jerusalemite who believes that Israel’s continued control of the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians is untenable, but who wondered that evening what it might be like to have to this situation on a far more regular basis. My home in southwest Jerusalem is, after all, no further from the nearest Palestinian West Bank village than Sderot is from Gaza.
This doesn’t alter the necessity of Israel finding a way to, once-and-for-all, separate from the Palestinians and establish permanent, internationally recognized borders. But it should, at the very least, give pause for thought to the more delusional sections of the left, who seem to believe that a full Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line would bring instant peace.
Most of all, no less than the national suicide ideas of the ‘Greater Israel’-right, it serves to highlight why the political center here is so crowded.