Argument

Israel Has a Silent Centrist Majority. Benjamin Netanyahu Is Blocking It.

As long as the prime minister remains in power, the electorate’s true preference—a centrist, secular, national unity government—will remain unfulfilled.

People demonstrate in support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
People demonstrate in support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Israel, on Dec. 11, 2019. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

One can only pity the poor Israeli voter, who will be going back to the polls in March for the third time in 11 months to elect yet another new government. If there were any signs that this time around the stalemate produced in the first two elections would be broken, it might be worth the effort. But the polls show the same indecisive outcome that has failed to produce a Knesset majority until now for either the left- or right-wing blocs.

A lot could happen between now and March 2 to change things, but the biggest event of all—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictment, announced at the end of November—has already occurred and hasn’t appreciably changed voter sentiment. His Likud party’s coalition lost seven Knesset seats between the April and September elections, but polls show its support has since steadied at 31 to 33 seats (assuming Netanyahu continues to lead the party). Meanwhile, his main opponent, Blue and White, has hit a ceiling of 35 to 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset, far too few to form a coalition except in a national unity government with Likud.

The unusual thing about the deadlock is that it doesn’t reflect the underlying reality of Israeli politics. Unlike many Western democracies, Israel hasn’t been torn asunder by the politics of anger and resentment. While there have been politicians who have dealt in incitement, they have failed to gain any traction. Netanyahu is certainly one of them, but only when he feels his back is against the wall—most famously in 2015, when he warned just before a close election that “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves” to get out the right-wing vote.The unusual thing about the deadlock is that it doesn’t reflect the underlying reality of Israeli politics.

Now that he’s facing a criminal trial, Netanyahu is playing with incitement again, this time against the legal system. But it’s not doing the trick. When he called a rally last month to vilify police and prosecutors, only a few thousand true believers showed up. Even loyal Likud politicians stayed away.

Contrary to what the election results seem to show, centrism is the dominant political trend in Israel. It’s a broad tent that can be characterized as favoring the status quo and as respectful of society’s institutions. Whatever change it wants, in particular in the realm of religion and state, it wants it to be moderate. On the party level, the Israeli center consists, of course, of Blue and White and a much-shrunken Labor Party, but it also includes a good part of Likud and even much of Avigdor Lieberman’s ostensibly right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, whose support has grown based on a platform calling for a secular unity government.

Likud is right of center, but not too far right. When Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, ending almost three decades of Labor Party rule, the Likud party he founded was a force for real disruption. But having been in power for roughly three out of the four decades since then, it’s become the party of the status quo even on the issue of settlements. Hardcore right-wingers and settler ideologues prefer more extreme parties, which got a mere seven Knesset seats in the September election. Yisrael Beiteinu used to be part of that rightist bloc as well, but this year it’s become the stalwart of secularism. The eight seats it has in the Knesset now come mainly from voters who want to see the ultra-Orthodox grip over so much of Israeli life removed.

If you add up on a percentage basis the votes of those parties, which better reflect Israeli political sentiment than Knesset seats, the center comprises more than 60 percent of all voters. It looks even bigger if you take into account two idiosyncrasies of Israeli politics—the ultra-Orthodox, whose parties captured 13.5 percent of the total vote in September and don’t fit neatly into any political category, and Israeli Arabs’ 10.6 percent voting share.

The latter’s Knesset representatives have traditionally looked at themselves as elected dissidents—there to criticize but generally standing aloof of coalition politics. They have never been invited into a government, nor had they wanted to be, until September, when Joint List leader Ayman Odeh broached the idea. The idea of joining a coalition, even one of the center-left, remains controversial both among Israeli Arabs and in the Israeli center, but the direction is clear: Arabs are moving into the Israeli center.The center comprises more than 60 percent of all voters.

The center stands a decent chance of coming to power in the next election, but it must clear two hurdles—the first is a big share of the electorate loyal to Netanyahu, and the second is a Likud party leadership fearful of him.

Abroad, Netanyahu’s image is of a divisive, ideological politician who rallies his base by inciting them against Arabs and the “leftist” establishment. To a degree, that’s true: When his back is against the wall, he’ll resort to anything to protect himself. But the reality is that he is more of a technocrat than a provocateur in the mold of U.S. President Donald Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He’s more at home discussing defense strategy with generals and flying off on diplomatic missions to the world’s capitals than working the crowds back at home.

Rightly, wrongly, or with much exaggeration, Israelis give him credit for leading the country through a decade of strong economic growth. He’s seen Israel clear of the chaos of the Arab Spring and contained the Hamas threat in Gaza by a series of (by Israeli standards) low-level wars. He finessed Israel’s relations with the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama and is now buddies with Trump, while forging ties with emerging powers such as India and China and even with Israel’s traditional enemies in the Gulf states.

Compared to these achievements, many Israelis see the criminal charges against Netanyahu as inconsequential. He remains Israel’s most popular leader, not because of his right-wing credentials (indeed, the far-right distrusts him) but because his practical political achievements please the political center. For many voters, the attitude is: Why replace Netanyahu as prime minister if his leadership is working perfectly well?

Netanyahu has frustrated the rise of the center by refusing to countenance a national unity government except with him as prime minister, at least for the first part of the government’s term. Blue and White has said that joining a government whose prime minister is under indictment is a nonstarter, so months of negotiations have led to a stalemate.

But even if the two sides could reach a compromise, the fact remains that Netanyahu would much prefer to preserve his long-standing alliance with the religious and far-right parties. The problem of the past two elections is that the religious-right bloc no longer has enough seats to form a coalition of its own. They’re long odds, but Netanyahu reportedly believes he just may be able to pull it off in the third election. Thus, the rise of the centrist majority can only happen if Netanyahu is ushered out of political life.Netanyahu has frustrated the rise of the center by refusing to countenance a national unity government except with him as prime minister. 

Likud is slated to hold a leadership vote this week, but it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will be toppled by his rival, Gideon Saar. He remains extremely popular in the party for an obvious reason: he has kept it in power for so long. The Likud has a tradition of loyalty to its leaders—there have been only four since 1977, and all left voluntarily. And just in case, Netanyahu has ensured that there are few to challenge him.

Anyone who has shown any sign of leadership aspirations, such as Naftali Bennett and Moshe Kahlon, have been marginalized or drummed out of the party altogether. Saar also took a leave from the party in 2014 out of frustration. Unusually, he returned three years later, but inside Likud his leadership bid is widely viewed as an act of treason against the party’s true leader.

Netanyahu has meanwhile seen to it that the most powerful ministries—Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Finance—have almost always been held by himself personally, by a non-threatening politician from a junior coalition partner, or gutted of any real authority.

Without being able to lead any of the big three ministries, up-and-coming Likud politicians have no way of showing their mettle or building a track record. Keeping Likud rivals down has the added benefit of strengthening the impression that Israel’s achievements over the past decade are Netanyahu’s alone and that only he is capable of sustaining them. As a result, many Israelis fear a future without Netanyahu as the country’s great helmsman.

If Israeli centrism does come to the fore anytime soon, it will probably happen in court. The High Court of Justice is weighing a petition that would bar a politician under indictment from being given the mandate to form a government. If it makes such a ruling, Netanyahu is finished.

Inside Likud, Gideon Saar’s leadership bid is widely viewed as an act of treason against the party’s true leader.

If that happens and the center does take control, it won’t necessarily be to everyone’s liking. The popular idea on Israel’s left and among liberals abroad that Israel will be a changed place once Netanyahu is gone is faulty.

The attacks on the judicial system and the media will come to an end, but Israel’s assertive policy toward Iran will remain intact, as will its attitude toward the Palestinians, except on the margins of Israeli politics. The settlers will no longer have allies in the government, but the political limbo of no negotiations with Palestinians and no annexation of the West Bank is perfectly acceptable across most of the Israeli political spectrum.

Israel can afford neither a long-term deadlock nor a minority government incapable of ruling effectively. Indeed, the moderation that characterizes the center could become undone by anger and frustration over a continued stalemate. As much as Israel’s silent centrist majority is big, it’s also delicate.

David E. Rosenberg is the economics editor and a columnist for the English edition of Haaretz and the author of Israel’s Technology Economy.

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