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The quiet rise of the Israeli center

Centrists fear two scenarios for Israel’s future: that there won’t be a Palestinian state and that there will be

The burden of our generation of Jews is the fear of squandering the gift of return to Zion. That fear helps explain the vehemence of our political and cultural debates. All our rival camps are essentially asking the same question: What is the fatal misstep that would cause us to lose this land again, this time perhaps forever?

Insufficient love of the land, responds the right. And a recurring Jewish naivete about our enemies’ intentions.

Ignoring the rights of those whom we are occupying, counters the left. Denying another people the sense of home we claim for ourselves.

Nonsense, insist the ultra-Orthodox. The greatest threat to our continued existence in this land has nothing to do with the territories but with the level of observance of the laws of the Torah.

Each camp sees in the other not merely an ideological rival but a potential existential threat. Perhaps the wonder isn’t that our debates are so shrill but that, given what the protagonists fear is at stake and what they believe about each other, those debates aren’t even more extreme.

A crucial moderating force in Israeli society has been the emergence in recent years of a political and cultural center. Centrists view the ideological certainties of the rival camps and the existential fears directed at fellow Jews as the real danger to the long-term viability of Israeli society.

Centrists are the least understood ideological group in Israel, in part because they lack a strong political home. And yet, on the key issues of the future of the territories and of the relationship between religion and state, the center represents a majority of Israelis.

In the four-decade-long debate between left and right over the future of the territories, the victor is – the center. A centrist embraces insights from left and right. There is nothing ambiguous, wishy-washy, about an Israeli centrist. The opposite: A centrist vigorously affirms his certainties. Those just happen to be in opposition to each other.

A centrist regards a Palestinian state as an existential necessity for Israel – saving us from the impossible choice between Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state, or the moral burden of occupying another people, from growing pariah status.

But a centrist also regards a Palestinian state as an existential threat to Israel – risking rocket attacks from the Samarian highlands on the coastal plain, where most Israelis live, transforming greater Tel Aviv into Sderot, the besieged Israeli town bordering Gaza that has been on the receiving end of thousands of rockets over the last decade.

A centrist has two nightmares about Israel’s future. The first is that there won’t be a Palestinian state. The second is that there will be.

This ambivalence is revealed in the polls. Some 70 percent of Israelis consistently support a two-state solution – in principle. But that same majority doubts that, in practice, a two-state solution will grant Israel peace, because the Palestinian national movement won’t accept the legitimacy of Israel even after a West Bank withdrawal.

A centrist regards with deep wariness the ideologues of left and right who dismiss the unbearable complexity of Israel’s dilemmas over territory and security threats, and whose solution to any problem is always the same – either accommodation or force.

A centrist recognizes that the debate over the future of Israel’s borders is so wrenching precisely because each side represents essential Jewish values and concerns.

A centrist shares with left-wingers the agonizing question: How could the Jewish people find itself as occupiers of another people? As rock musician Tomer Yosef sings in a powerful new album, Hahatzer Ha’ahorit (Backyard), and produced together with veteran composer Yankeleh Rothblit, who lost a leg in the 1967 battle for Jerusalem:

The great story that begins with the Bible
And continues to this time
With an exiled people that returned
Two thousand years later
To its home between the river and the sea
The great story of Shoah and rebirth
Hungry pioneers redeeming the land…
The great story has lost its way.

Yet a centrist rejects the notion that Jews are occupiers in the land of Israel. We are certainly occupiers of another people – and attempts by right-wingers to deny that reality only undermine their credibility among centrists – but we are not strangers in any part of this land.Yes, we will need to compromise with a competing national claim. But any territorial withdrawal, however necessary, will be a wound to our being, a sacrifice of cherished parts of our homeland.

A centrist believes that our ability to remain an intact people depends in large measure on recognizing the Jewish legitimacy of our competing voices. For a centrist, the debate isn’t occurring so much in Israeli society as it is within himself, with left and right each compellingly arguing its case.

A similar sensibility has emerged in Israel’s culture war over religion and state.

Centrists want less Judaism in official Israel, especially in legislation. And centrists want more Judaism in Israeli education and culture and in their personal lives.

This emerging cultural center – which parallels the political center that has formed over the future of the territories – embraces secularists, post-secularists, traditionalists, and moderate religious Zionists.

For all practical purposes, there is no longer a religious-secular divide in Israel. There is, instead, a divide between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else. The current Israeli government reflects this new reality. For the first time since 1977, ultra-Orthodox parties have been excluded from the government. And those parties were kept out by a coalition of secular and religious politicians.

Centrists are tired of Israel’s internal wars. They crave a middle way between extremes – a way for Jews to honor each other’s vital insights and legitimate fears, transforming the ingathering of the exiles from rival communities back into a people.

About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.