Did Israelis Give The Center A Big Win?

January 24, 2013 § 9 Comments

Now that the final results of the Israeli election are in, everyone is rushing to declare that centrist parties were the big winners and that the Israeli electorate has made a surprising shift away from the right. This is understandable in light of the fact that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party won 19 seats to become the second largest party in the Knesset and Bibi Netanyahu led the Likud-Beiteinu list to an extremely disappointing 31 seats, down from the 42 seats that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu control in the current Knesset. Nevertheless, I think that this view of things is incorrect. As I argue in Foreign Affairs, this does not take into account that the other so-called centrist parties did poorly and finished well below expectations and that many Likud voters chose to move even farther to the right by giving Habayit Hayehudi 12 seats. In addition, Yesh Atid can be characterized as centrist in some ways but as pragmatically rightwing in others, and so dubbing yesterday’s results as an unabashed win for the center is misleading. In fact, the center controls 28 seats in the current Knesset, but will control 27 seats in the next one (19 for Yesh Atid, 6 for Hatnua, 2 for Kadima), so in reality the center actually lost ground. No doubt Lapid scored a big victory, but one centrist party doing well does not mean that Israel is now avowedly centrist, particularly when other centrist parties turned in disappointing performances and the banner rightwing nationalist party more than doubled its current Knesset representation. Here is a teaser from my piece in FA:

The problem with this narrative, however, is that Tuesday’s results were not really a victory for centrists and Yesh Atid is not really a centrist party. The largest vote-getter was still Likud-Beiteinu, made up of arguably the most right-wing version of Likud in the party’s history and the nationalist and pro-settlement Yisrael Beiteinu. Bayit Yehudi also did well, and it will be the fourth largest party in the Knesset with 11 seats. On the left, Labor underperformed and could not even garner enough votes to win second place as expected. Livni’s Hatnua, meanwhile, won fewer seats than even the parochial ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism. Kadima, a real centrist party, has all but disappeared, plummeting from 28 seats to two. Even though the right-wing parties did not do quite as well as they had hoped, the larger picture does not support the claim that the center scored a great victory.

Furthermore, the grouping of Labor, Hatnua, and Yesh Atid under a centrist or center-left banner is analytically lazy. On economic issues, those three parties do indeed fall within the left and the center. On security and foreign policy issues, Labor and Hatnua are centrist as well. Yesh Atid, however, cannot be accurately described as centrist when it comes to the peace process. Lapid has stated that Jerusalem cannot be divided under any circumstances and insists that standing firm on this issue will force the Palestinians to recant their demand that East Jerusalem serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state. During the campaign, Lapid chose the West Bank settlement of Ariel as the place to give a major campaign speech calling for negotiations with the Palestinians, and declined to endorse a settlement freeze. None of this is enough to put him into the far-right camp, which rejects the two-state solution and calls for annexing the West Bank, but it also does not make him a centrist. In fact, Lapid’s views on security issues are close to those that Netanyahu has publicly staked out.

To read the rest please click over to Foreign Affairs, and comments and emails are welcome as always.


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§ 9 Responses to Did Israelis Give The Center A Big Win?

  • Jonah says:

    I’m sorry to break this to you, but not dividing Jerusalem is a centrist position in Israel. Most polls show that a majority of Israelis hold this view.

    • That does not make something a centrist position. It means that a majority of Israelis lean right on security issues, which is not at all surprising given events of the last decade plus.

      • Elli F says:

        Most Israelis who oppose division of Jerusalem do not do so on security grounds, but on national, historical, and/or religious grounds.

      • Simi says:


        How do you define left leaning and right leaning? Shouldn’t that be relative to the Israeli public and their preferences as opposed to some artificial catagorization by outside observors and what they feel is “central” (read: normal or correct)?

        If the “majority of Israeli’s lean right on security issues”, then maybe that’s not really right leaning?


      • I’m not sure why you think that center implies normal or correct. Seems to me that you are projecting your fears onto others. Right, left, and center describe political views and have nothing to do with how many people ascribe to them. To take an extreme example, the popularity of fascism initially under Mussolini did not make Mussolini’s platform a centrist one. I don’t understand why people who support the rightwing in Israel aren’t happier that they have won the argument on security issues rather than rushing to pretend that the Israeli populace is center or left of center. The majority of Israeli lean right on security because they think that Likud’s position makes more sense than Labor’s or Meretz’s or Tzipi Livni’s. That doesn’t make them centrist; it makes them right leaning.

      • Simi says:

        To your reply below: (There was no reply button, so I had to reply here).

        I think that generally, those in the center like to view themselves as being more balanced and nuanced , as they have found a middle of the road position. They are able to take the good from both extremes, and compromise at a happy medium. On the other hand, the right and left wing people are unable to appreciate the opinion of those on the other extreme, and therefore lack the ability to frame issues in a mature and balanced way.
        By suggesting that most Israeli’s are “right wing”, the implication is that Most Israeli’s are extreme, if only on this one issue.

        Another way of looking at it is that perhaps this view held by a majority of Israeli’s is actually a centrist approach; one which incorporates the ideological strains as well as the pragmatic considerations.

        This is my point: You said “Right, left, and center describe political views and have nothing to do with how many people ascribe to them.” So who does determine these catagorizations?

  • Just posted this on Foreign Affairs:

    Koplow argues that “the grouping of Labor, Hatnua, and Yesh Atid under a centrist or center-left banner is analytically lazy.” But it is he who is analytically lazy, because he insists on using the obsolete categories from the Peace-Now-1990s, i.e. left=pro-peace/2states vs. right=opposed to territorial compromise/peace/2states. The vast majority of (Jewish) Israeli voters has come to believe — for good reason — that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is not in the cards for the time being, and therefore, this issue didn’t figure prominently in this election.

    The fact of the matter is plainly that it was “Middle Israel” that voted for Lapid, who ran on a platform that addressed the concerns of this group — which, whether or not Koplow likes it — is Israel’s center in more than one sense.

    Moreover, if Koplow wants to employ the 1990s criteria to classify the political leanings of Israel’s electorate, his claim that “The basic fact remains that the Israeli electorate leans right” is clearly undermined by plenty of polls documenting that a clear majority of Israelis support a 2state-solution.
    He is also hardly consistent when he claims that Kadima is “a real centrist party” — when it was founded, there were plenty of articles arguing that it isn’t and couldn’t be, because it was after all created out of the Likud, with Likud princes and princesses like Olmert and Livni dominant. That Livni talked in her campaign now about her ambitions to negotiate a peace agreement means very little: Livni talks a lot, but has accomplished nothing — not even after she won the last election (unless one wants to credit her with destroying Kadima and now cannibalizing the left). She knows very well that Abbas considered Olmert’s offer as not far-reaching enough, and that no Israeli negotiator will be able to offer more.

  • monsieurginger says:

    As someone who describes himself as Left-of-Center, I defend my view for a united Jerusalem on simply practical terms. I used to hold the Leftist position on the issue but my mind was changed by Yaacov Lozowick before he became the Chief Archivist in Israel (he used to blog regularly on his own views).

    I’m very secular so the significance of Jerusalem to my Jewish beliefs doesn’t input to the equation. I don’t even like Jerusalem. I’m more of a Haifa fan than anything else, other than being a kibbutznik. What does matter to me are the consequences of putting an international border in the middle of a city. As bad as things are as far as management of the city, I imagine it would it be a lot worse if the city is split.

    I don’t care if its the Left or Right position, liberal or conservative. I think it will eventually be what all Jerusalemites will want, including the Arabs. It’s been trending that way and I can’t see anything stopping it unless the mayor/municipality-authorities start behaving like Beitar Jerusalem fans.

  • Koen Pauwels says:

    Michael is correct on his left-center-right argument that these terms should be defined in an absolute way (or, I would add, in a global way), not depending on which side most citizens in a given country are leaning. Otherwise, the same position on any issue would make me far-left-of-center in the US and far-right-of-center in Belgium. One cool recent example was a questionnaire arranging yourself and worldwide leaders and candidates on 2 dimensions: economically left-right and authoritarian-liberal. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are economically right and authoritarian on this scale – an insight you would be hard pressed to gain from the discussion within the States.

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