A couple of months ago I was sipping lemonade on a Herzliya rooftop with a senior Israeli politician who offered me to join the “Center Party”. There was something about that idea. See, journalists dream about politics the way 16 year-olds dream about sex. After two hours of conversation there was one thing I just couldn’t understand: the center of what? That aforementioned centrist party is really just a codename for a group of people unwilling to take responsibility. It will be the Vague Party with a bunch of wily characters. Under the title “Center” they can run in the elections without committing to anything.
–Ma’ariv, October 16, 1998
When an Israeli columnist named Yair Lapid wrote the above in 1998, he was referring to a short-lived Israeli political party called the Center Party, which ran in the 1999 elections against Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud and Ehud Barak’s Labor. The Center Party performed dismally, winning only six Knesset seats; the victory went to Barak. It was a low-point in Israel’s love affair with centrist parties.
Fourteen years later, Israelis’ fickle love affair with the political center is more powerful than ever—and ironically, the journalist who was once so skeptical of the Center Party is now the head of his own, Yesh Atid. Despite commentators’ simplistic tendency to paint the electorate in stark partisan terms (with the ultra-orthodox thrown in for good measure), voters are attracted to the so-called political center, evidenced yet again on Tuesday with Yesh Atid’s windfall of 19 seats.
When Menahem Begin’s Likud came into power in the legendary mahapach, or upheaval, of the 1977 elections, he had Dash (the Democratic Movement for Change), a centrist party made up of successful—and, up to that point, apolitical—public figures to thank. After nearly 30 years of uninterrupted and increasingly corrupt Labor rule, Dash attracted enough disappointed left-wing voters that Labor lost its advantage and the elections. But Dash soon split into three factions and was not to run again.
In 2003, Shinui (Change), one of those long-dormant Dash factions, re-invented itself as a platform for Yosef “Tommy” Lapid a cranky, outspoken journalist—and Yair’s father. Tommy Lapid became a conduit for secular Israelis’ increasing exasperation with the influence of the ultra-Orthodox on public life. His party won 15 Knesset seats, allowing for Ariel Sharon to form an “Orthodox-free” government. But less than two years later, the Orthodox were back in power and Lapid’s ministers were out. In 2006 Shinui couldn’t even get itself re-elected.
Kadima, by far the most ambitious and successful attempt to create a centrist party, was also the most tragic in the long-term. When Ariel Sharon, frustrated by the so-called rebels in the Likud Party who objected to his attempts to execute a unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, left Likud and created Kadima, he was carrying out a plan that many politicians had only dreamed of: the creation of a “big bang” party, that would bring together the best politicians from both Likud and Labor (Sharon, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni chief among them). Kadima was meant to be so attractive with the Israeli mainstream that it would be literally unbeatable.
While Kadima did win the 2006 elections, Ehud Olmert’s government was short-lived. Under Tzipi Livni, Kadima garnered the most seats in the outgoing Knesset, but Livni was unable or unwilling to piece together a coalition. After four dismal years in the opposition (and an even more dismal 70-day stint in Netanyahu’s government in mid-2012), Kadima under Shaul Mofaz just barely made it into the next Knesset, with only two seats.
After Tuesday’s elections, many on the right and left here are furious with the way that so many of their fellow Israelis flat-out rejected ideology and embraced Lapid’s “Vague Party” with its “wily character.” And as a first-hand witness to Shinui’s short life and death, the younger Lapid knows just how quick even his most devoted acolytes will judge a party that doesn’t deliver on its promises. But even if Yesh Atid’s days are numbered, Likud and Labor are the ones licking their wounds today, and Lapid is the man of the hour.
If a Netanyahu-Lapid government will work to integrate the ultra-orthodox into the military and the workforce, reboot the peace process, and reform the political system, Lapid could be Israel’s next prime minister. And if it doesn’t, you can always count on there being another centrist party waiting in the wings.