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Clowns to the left of me, populists to the right

If you believe in an Israel that is proudly Jewish and proudly democratic, then you're in the political center

If committed left-wingers and committed right-wingers agree on one thing, it is their view of self-defined “centrists”. Centrist politics are derided as either fuzzy and values-free, or the refuge for those who simply cannot make up their minds. This not only does a disservice to a great many driven and principled people, but it misses the urgency of the moment; we need strong, centrist politics today like never before.

In the United States, political polarization has reached levels unseen for a century. The Republican right has become the vehicle for Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant populism (with its periodic nods and winks to the racist far-right); while the Democratic base (if not yet members of Congress) is threatening to move away from the patriotic, ‘one-nation’ liberalism of the Kennedys and Clintons, towards the angry, West-bashing identity politics of “progressive” millennials.

In Europe the success of  authoritarian populist parties in country after country has been matched by the near-collapse of traditionally dominant left-wing political institutions such as the Social Democratic Party in Germany and the Socialist Party in France. In Britain meanwhile, one country in Europe where the established progressive party is still a force, that party has been taken over by a far-left cabal that believes Hugo Chavez got it right in Venezuela.

In both the US and the UK, one response has been to strengthen and promote centrist politics.

And what of Israel? Well, Israel offers us a variation on the same theme. It has long been the case that, on the primary fault-line of Israeli politics – the conflict with the Palestinians –  the majority of Israelis are firmly in the center. Rejecting both the Left’s entreaties to place “ending the occupation” at the top of the priority list, and the Right’s determination to hold on to the West Bank forever, the majority of Israelis accept that we are in a catch-22. They understand that the Left’s dream of “peace now” runs the real risk of Gaza on a much larger scale, a terror-state holding the strategic high-ground of in the West Bank, with all of Israel within missile range. And they understand that the Right’s dream of Greater Israel could lead us to the demographic reality of a bi-national state – the end of the  Zionist dream of a democratic state with a Jewish majority. So significant is this centrist position that a book dedicated to explaining it, Micah Goodman’s Catch-67, shot to the top of the best-seller list.

Beyond the conflict, we can see in Israel more of the same polarization in evidence across the democratic world. The legendary Israeli Labor Party, the political force which established the state and gave us David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, is teetering on the brink of electoral calamity according to polls, just about making it into double figures in terms of Knesset seats. Its leader Avi Gabbay is in the news only because of his obnoxious treatment of Tzipi Livni and the veritable circus of infighting he has created within the party. Meretz remains a principled but very small presence in the Knesset, with some industrious and impressive parliamentarians but ultimately hamstrung by a dogmatic attachment to peace negotiations with a thoroughly discredited Palestinian leadership. On the far-left, there is a small but vocal gaggle of post-Zionists angling for the removal of Israel’s Jewish character, establishing a “state of all its citizens”.

(Note the irony that the extreme Left’s preferred scenario is but a variation of the annexationist Right’s. This is Israel’s version of the circular political spectrum, where the far-left and far-right meet at a certain point. Outside of Israel, that point is often antisemitism. Inside Israel, it’s a one-state solution which will either no longer be Jewish or no longer be democratic.)

Just as the Left used to be the home of security-oriented pragmatists like Rabin and Moshe Dayan, so the Right was once led by Menachem Begin, a liberal democrat committed to the rule of law. Though a few representatives of Begin’s ‘liberal nationalism’ remain in Israeli politics (and we lost one earlier this week with the passing of Moshe Arens) the Likud of Benjamin Netanyahu has become increasingly detached from this tradition; embracing populism of the lowest kind with the Prime Minister’s repeated attacks on the media and his acolytes routinely calling out “leftist traitors” and delegitimizing institutions of the state. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked are promising us a ‘New Right’, but it is Shaked who has led the assault on the Supreme Court, protesting that “Zionism will not continue to bend its neck to a system of individual rights”. In recent years, a number of Knesset members from all the right-wing parties appear to have opted for a distinctly illiberal democracy, whereby democracy means majority rule and little else. As Yair Lapid has pointedly expressed, checks and balances are required to ensure that 61 Knesset members cannot simply vote away the civil rights of the other 59.

And it is Lapid’s Yesh Atid party that represents the most compelling centrist alternative to the collapsing Left and the increasingly populist Right. Unlike other centrist pretenders such as Orly Levy-Abekasis and Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid has a serious and genuinely centrist platform. Unlike the Right it will not be building new settlements; unlike the Left it is not rushing to rehabilitate Mahmoud Abbas as a peace partner. It accepts the need to ultimately separate from the Palestinians but will look to do so in the context of a regional arrangement with “pragmatic Arab states”. Sitting in the opposition, Lapid’s party has joined with Labor and Meretz in opposing government measures against democracy and civil rights, but more than the Left, Yesh Atid MKs have invoked not just the language of universal human rights, but the original liberal spirit of Zionism. It was Yesh Atid who proposed that the controversial text of the Nation-State Law be replaced by text based on Israel’s Declaration of Independence – affirming Israel’s Jewish basis and character, and its promise of equal rights to all citizens. (The original drafter of this more liberal version of the bill was Benny Begin, one of the few Likud MKs still loyal to the liberal nationalism of his father.)

Placing oneself on the political map in Israel is always a challenge; this election we have to also contend with the noise surrounding the possible indictment of the Prime Minister (and his attempts to play the victim of a massive media-leftist-police conspiracy). But if you believe in an Israel that is proudly Jewish and proudly democratic; if you believe that peace with our neighbors will ultimately require territorial concessions but you understand that these concessions cannot be made with ‘peace partners’ that reject Israel’s very legitimacy, then you are part of the Israeli center. And in Israel, as in the rest of today’s troubled democracies, the center is where most of the solutions can be found to the problems of this polarised age.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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