The Fantasy of the Center: A Preliminary Postmortem
Now that the 2022 Israeli elections are over, those of us who supported the Lapid block need to do a postmortem. To be clear, I don’t mean the unhelpful kind that includes blame and name-calling (if you are interested in such, you can read plenty of biting posts elsewhere). Nor do I mean pointing out what those other than your party did wrong—this too is common and easy to do, and many such criticisms have a modicum of truth in them, but they are not all that helpful.
As I am a centrist, and have been a supporter of Yesh Atid from the beginning, and plan on remaining one for the foreseeable future, I want to take the opportunity of looking at where we failed. I am not referring here to tactical failures; worrying about whether there was any way to have ensured Meretz passing, or more support from Gantz, are small issues, and obsessing about them is a way of taking imaginary control of a situation gone south. What I think we need to concentrate on is why our message wasn’t as appealing as we thought it would be.
What is the message of the center?
As I understand it, the center has staked out the following claim: While the world obsesses about the Arab-Israeli conflict, we realize that we can do nothing about it right now. So, we will put it on the back-burner and concentrate on wins where we can make a difference.
We will work on lowering prices, improving the lives of Arab-Israelis with funding for roads, build new hospitals and a new airport, advance social issues such as improving the place of women in the workplace, and environmental issues such as fighting pollution and global warming. These issues, we believed, should have broad appeal even to the right.
What about the Palestinians? Here the idea was we can split the difference. We will maintain the status quo, which includes retaining some form of control over the entire West Bank (it differs in areas A, B, and C), and we will avoid the term “West Bank” sticking exclusively to “Judea and Samaria,” the preferred term of the right. At the same time, we affirm that the ultimate goal is a Two-State Solution, knowing that we have no idea how we could ever implement such a thing, given that the Palestinians have never agreed to our terms, and most of Jewish-Israel lost their faith in such negotiations after the Second Intifada (2000–2005).
This strategy: move forward with economic and social issues while pushing the Palestinian issue into an unknown future, did not work. Apparently, it isn’t just the world that wants a solution to the crisis, but Israelis as well. And here we hit the crux of the problem.
About thirty years ago, the Labor party was given the power to negotiate a deal with the Palestinians. Jewish Israelis hoped that an actual solution to the problem was on the horizon, and thought that as Likud was offering no solution at all, it was time to give Labor a chance.
The process extended through the Oslo accords [1993, Rabin], Olso II [1995, Rabin], the Hebron agreement [1997, Netanyahu] and the Wye Plantation agreement [1998, Netanyahu]), and established the status quo of areas A, B, and C. When it came to final status, the negotiations between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat fell apart. Arafat then launched the Second Intifada, with terror attacks all over Israel, essentially terminating any real belief in a Two State Solution among the majority of Jewish Israelis.
At this point, we entered a zone in which neither the right nor left had any solution:
The right talks about annexation but doesn’t explain how we are going to have a population of two million Arabs without voting rights and not be in a perpetual civil war, nor how Israelis can defend such a position to the world at large, or even to themselves.
The left talks about the Two State Solution, but in a way similar to the phrase “when the Messiah comes” in religious circles. Other than the far-left, nobody sees how this can be done without endangering the state, given that the stance of the Palestinians—a capital in East Jerusalem and the right of return to Israel (not to the Palestinian State that would be formed)—hasn’t changed. Among the center-left, the Two-State Solution has become a creed, not a plan.
If neither has a real plan, why did the right win?
A key message I glean from the election results is that when nobody has a practical plan, Jewish-Israelis prefer to err on the side of caution and suspicion, so they vote right, while Arab-Israelis feel that the two sides are the same, so they don’t vote at all.
If the center wishes to capture the imagination of the Israeli majority again, we need a new plan. We know that ruling over millions of people is immoral and impractical, and we know that an Oslo-style negotiated peace with the Palestinians that would be safe for Israel and acceptable to the PA is a pipe dream. We also know that unilateral withdrawal, like what we did in Gaza, ends with Palestine under a radical Hamas government with rockets shot at our houses.
If the center wants to lead the country into the future—and I hope that it will—it is not enough to offer lower prices on imports, provide better healthcare, and issue faster building permits in the Arab sector; we need fresh thinking about the core conflict. We need to find a way to offer a practical solution that will be fair to the Palestinians and safe for Jewish-Israelis, allowing us, Jews and Arabs alike, to take broad strides into a new future.