Seeing the Half-Filled Cup for Israel’s Center-Left

Benny Gantz, Chair of the Blue and White Party on election night, 2019: Changing Israel's political landscape
Benny Gantz, Chair of the Blue and White Party on election night, 2019: Changing Israel's political landscape

In the week that has transpired since the election, Israel’s center-left citizens have experienced varying degrees of despondence. Once again, they went to bed with their candidate projected to become Prime Minister  — and then woke up with Bibi Netanyahu.  The Blue and White party’s premature victory party surely did not help. As someone who was very involved in the campaign as a Blue and White candidate, I’ll admit to also initially exhibiting such gloomy symptoms. But you don’t have to an incurable optimist like me to come to see the many positive outcomes that can be attributed to the recent vote.  Now that the dust has settled, here are just a few of the many happy results worth considering, when contemplating Israel’s political reality for the coming years.

First of all, it is well to consider the alternative: What would the political landscape look like today if the Blue and White party had not emerged – out of nowhere — and won over more than a third of Israel’s voters?  A party that was no more than two months old, fell only 14,000 ballots short of beating the seemingly unbeatable Likud.

Without the hope and roadmap to possible victory that the Blue and White party provided for over a million people, progressives would be looking at a very different reality. It is likely that Labor, Meretz and Yesh Atid– the Center/left of the Zionist parties, would have cobbled together little more than 30 Knesset seats.

Under such a scenario, Israel would wake up in a week or two with a leadership dominated by extremists: religious messianic Bezalel Smotrich would probably be Minister of Education; trigger-happy Naftali Bennett would be Minister of Defense; Supreme Court nemesis  Ayelet Shaked, Minister of Justice /racist-Kahana admirer, Itamar Ben Gvir sitting on the committee that appoints judges –– unless of course Shaked succeeded in canceling the committee altogether (as she promised to do during her election campaign). None of those traumatic appointments are likely to happen now.

A powerful new centrist presence pulled over about 4 votes from Israel’s soft “right wing” block, to expand the Knesset’s moderate voting block at the expense of right-wing extremism.  This figure can be ascertained from the 44 seats now which are now categorized as “center/left” versus the 40 which existed in the 2015 Knesset.

The winds created by Blue and White were strong enough to produce a turbulence that amounted to a perfect storm for the Likud.  At least six Knesset seats from far-right parties were lost, when Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut and the Bennet/Shaked New Right parties failed to pass the electoral threshold.  Their shortfall was a result of Netanyahu’s last minute “Gevalt” campaign to come home to Likud – which he felt compelled to launch, because polls consistently showed him losing to Blue and White.

If those additional six, right-wing seats were in play during the present coalition negotiations, the resulting reactionary government would be far more stable and extreme. That means more religious coercion, more sectoral support for West Bank settlers, more conservative judges disinclined to intervene to protect human rights; more dismissiveness about Arab Israeli’s equal status; and of course more hostility to any peace initiative.  Ouch.

With the new political calculus created by a narrow right-wing edge, Netanyahu will have a very hard time balancing ultra-Orthodox demands with those of his secular coalitional partners who support mandatory military service for Haredim.  Assuming that Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu Knesset members don’t blink, there will be a party with veto power committed to preventing the rash of anti-democratic laws which can be anticipated by extremist elements embedded in the coalition.

This is especially important within the context of the so-called “French Law” which would grant the Prime Minister immunity from prosecution as long he is in his present post.  The Likud is surely interested in promoting this law as it has already tried.  It is unlikely that any narrow coalition that does coalesce will agree to allow Netanyahu to be the one citizen in the country  to be above the law.  This means that Netanyahu’s criminal indictment for corruption may not be not far away, something that will shake up present alliances and open up the new political possibilities.

That’s the good news in terms of “damage control”.  But there is also tremendous intrinsic value in having the “Blue and White” party as the new kid on the block in the 21st Knesset.  Let’s start with the new blood it brings to the Knesset, which all told will have 48 (40%) new members.  Most are young, idealistic and creative.  They join the strong veteran parliamentarians in the Labor party and create a large cohort of young legislators about whom we can finally be proud.

More importantly, the party offers living proof that the polarization –the seemingly unbridgeable political division between left and right — is to some extent manufactured to serve extremist interests on both sides.  The vast number of Israelis do not believe that “Peace Now” is a prudent strategy, given the internal conflict among Palestinians and their historic unwillingness to accept reasonable compromise with Israel. But at the same time, a recent poll by right-wing newspaper “Israel Today” confirms that over 70% of Israelis also do not want “Annexation Now”.   They understand the ethical and diplomatic consequences.

The Blue and White party created a strong centrist alternative for Israelis who want to pursue peace fervently, but cautiously. It’s not an oxymoron. The  appeal of the party is likely to grow because Israelis really do prefer unity to cynical manipulation and magnification of differences.

One can argue that this election outcome, even more than previous ones, was a result of the low turnout among Israeli Arabs.  Only about 46% of Israeli Arabs voted, a third less on average than the >70% turnout among Israeli Jews.  If Arab participation had been comparable to Jewish participation in this election, Benny Gantz would indeed be forming the government today rather than Bibi Netanyahu. Engaging Arab Israeli citizens and integrating moderate Arab leaders into their future list constitutes a paramount priority for the Blue and White Party if it is to win the next election outright.

Of course there are reasons to be discouraged by the present election results.  The truth of the matter is that demographically, Israel is steadily becoming a more religious place. This is reflected at the ballot box.  For instance only 13% of the voters for the leftist Meretz party were under 30 –as opposed to 50% of Feiglin’s Zehut supporters.  For the foreseeable future, Israel’s religious citizens prefer right-wing perspectives.  But this could change.  If Israel’s left is ever to have political power again, it will have to find a way to be more inclusive, less condescending and more moderate.

A strong, ethical and inspirational centrist party has now shown that it can move citizens beyond their old, political ghettos. Like-minded people, who ostensibly come from very different ethnic and religious orientations, found that they actually agree about 90% of the policies that need to be adopted to move Israel forward.  There is every reason to believe that in the next election, presumably, with a less effective, demagogic opponent, results will be different.

Founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion is said to have quipped: “In Israel, in order to be a realist — you must believe in miracles.”  But Israel’s history is less about miracles than pragmatic people, reading reality as it is without illusions, seeing what needed to be and then doing something about it.   The 2019 elections marks the start of such a political process.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.
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