It is conventional wisdom that the majority of the Israelis do not identify with the political Right or Left but belong to the amorphous “Center.” I do not know whether this observation is accurate, but the history of centrist parties in Israel does not seem bear out this observation.
Historically in Israel the Center has been associated with being somewhere between Mapai and the Herut Movement and later on between the Labor Party and the Likud, and for years the so called centrist parties – the General Zionists, the Progressives, the Liberal Party and the Independent Liberals, were potential partners of both the Left and the Right, but always secondary, behind-the-scenes players, never extreme in their positions, and useful for the creation of a “preventive bloc” (a party bloc preventing anyone else forming a government) or as a means of gaining legitimacy (in the case of the first alignment between Herut and the Liberals in the Gahal list in 1965).
The Liberals played an important role in Menachem Begin’s first government in 1977, when one of its central figures, Simha Erlich, was appointed as finance minister, and started the process of dismantling the country’s predominantly socialist economy. However, especially after the merging of Herut and the Liberals into the Likud party in 1988, the Liberals started to become increasingly invisible within the Likud. In so far as liberalism is also associated with the rule of law and democratic values, liberalism within the Likud suffered a death blow just before the elections to the 19th Knesset, when all the liberal- minded Herutniks (except for Reuven Rivlin) were left out of the Likud list. Rivlin was then elected president.
However, the history of the Center in Israel does not only focus on the “old” liberal parties. Several centrist parties – always including former Likudniks and Laborites, in addition to new figures – have emerged and then vanished. The first case was that of the DMC (Dash), which in the 1977 elections received 15 seats, but within a year disintegrated into several small parliamentary groups and single MKs.
This happened primarily because its leader Yigael Yadin – a renown former chief of staff and archeologist (the Masada excavations were one of his projects) – lacked leadership qualities. Even though Dash joined Begin’s first government, he had an absolute Knesset majority without it, and in the historic peace-making process with Egypt enjoyed the support of the Labor Party in opposition with its 31 members, so that in the absence of leadership and cohesiveness, Dash became irrelevant.
Another effort was that of the Center Party, headed by Itzik Mordechai, which was established toward the end of the 14th Knesset, ran in the 1999 elections, received six seats, joined Ehud Barak’s government and then vanished after failing to pass the qualifying threshold in the 2003 elections.
The reason for the rise and fall of the Center Party was largely a matter of egos – especially that of Mordechai himself who, to make things worse, was involved in charges of sexual harassment.
The establishment of the Kadima Party toward the end of the 16th Knesset by Ariel Sharon, and its electoral success in the elections to the 17th Knesset under Ehud Olmert (following Sharon’s incapacitation), seemed to herald a new fate for new centrist parties. But Kadima did not escape the fate of its predecessors. We do not know whether Kadima would have survived had Sharon recovered from his stroke, or had Olmert not succumbed to a series of petty corruption scandals which forced him to resign from the premiership, but what followed was the failure of his successor, Tzipi Livni, to form a government after the elections to the 18th Knesset, even though Kadima received more seats than the Likud. In the elections to the 19th Knesset Kadima, under Shaul Mofaz, went down to two seats.
In the coming elections Livni and Mofaz, and the other remnants of Kadima, will be running in other lists.
In the elections to the 19th Knesset we had a new Center party – Yesh Atid. Yesh Atid differed from all its predecessors in that none of its candidates had served in a previous Knesset (even though two of them had served as mayors on behalf of other parties), and in that its leader, Yair Lapid, unlike his predecessors (excluding his father Tommy Lapid) adopted some very extreme positions on certain issues.
The future of Yesh Atid is not clear, though in the 20th Knesset the number of its seats is likely to halve. Here the blame is largely on the cockiness of Lapid – a novice in the political game, who accepted the Finance Ministry in Netanyahu’s third government, even though he understands nothing about economics, kept climbing all the wrong trees, and failed to see Netanyahu’s “zubur” (degradation rite) coming. The fact that he never received a matriculation certificate, and went directly to writing a PhD thesis at Bar-Ilan University not long before entering politics seems indicative of the problem. It is not the absence of a formal education that matters, but the accompanying presumptuousness.
Which brings us to Moshe Kahlon.
Is there any reason to believe that Kahlon’s new party (which does not yet officially exist, and has not yet published a platform, or a list of candidates) will manage to avoid the pitfalls of all his predecessors, and be strong enough to enable Kahlon to lead a centrist inclined “just not Netanyahu” coalition, which will put Israel back on a sane track? Kahlon’s opening positions are promising. In the first place, though he comes from the Likud, and has right-wing views regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, he is open minded, and when he says that if the possibility of a peace settlement surfaces, he will be willing to evacuate territories, he is much more believable than Netanyahu was in his Bar-Ilan speech about the two-state solution.
Secondly, Kahlon has ministerial experience, some of it excellent, some of it a little less impressive – but he is certainly no novice.
Thirdly, in the past year Kahlon has gone to the trouble of learning some economics, and consulting experienced and renown economists. What this means is that he is unlikely to repeat the Lapid experience.
Fourthly, though Kahlon is not a social democrat in the conventional sense, social issues are high on his agenda. His background – son of a family with seven children, which came from Libya – means that his social agenda is based not only on intellectual foundations, but on personal experience as well. In today’s Israeli reality, this has great appeal, not only for the underprivileged, but for the lower middle class as well.
However, most important of all, Kahlon is acceptable to most sections of Israeli society. He is free of any pompous mannerisms, he is level- headed and congenial, unlikely to get caught in any wrong-doing, and has no holy cows on his agenda.
The fact that he is of Mizrahi origin, and not identified as a leftist, though respected by the Left, means that he is the perfect candidate to lead the “only not Netanyahu” camp.
Of course, like many before him Kahlon might prove to be a disappointment.
In addition, he must confront the egos of all those who also view themselves as potential leaders of the camp – including Isaac Herzog, Avigdor Liberman, Yair Lapid and Zipi Livni. In the final reckoning, will they agree to rally around Kahlon? Time will tell. In the meantime we can hope that the jinx that seems to follow centrist parties in Israel will keep away this time.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.