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Caveat emptor: The illusion of a political Center
By MARTIN SHERMAN
31/01/2013
Into they Fray: Time and time again the Israeli voter has been hoodwinked into voting for allegedly centrist parties only to have them evaporate later.
 
This [remark by Yair Lapid] showed a kind of crude contempt, mixed with a whiff of racism, for those whom Lapid does not consider part of his political camp. Zoabi was duly elected to the Knesset by Israeli voters who supported her party. – “Yair Lapid’s mental block,” Haaretz editorial, January 25

It seems that neither the protests nor the vote for Yair Lapid were ever about “social justice,” in the sense of narrowing the gap between the upper and lower deciles. On the contrary: If Lapid... finds a way to get money from others and bring it to his electorate, as they hope he will, then the income gap... will only grow wider – “The wealthy minions of Yair Lapid,” – Haaretz, January 27

Yair Lapid’s intention of joining up with Netanyahu buries any hope of anything moving on the diplomatic front in the coming years; there’s no point in denying it.... Don’t get your hopes up in the socioeconomic realm either... Lapid won’t fight crony capitalism – because he believes in it; he merely wants to harness it to meet his own goals. – “Lapid is Netanyahu’s new twin,” Haaretz, January 28

Well, it didn’t take long, did it? In fact, all it took was a brief statement by Lapid that he would not join up with anti-Zionist lists to prevent the appointment of Binyamin Netanyahu to head the next governing coalition to incur the wrath of the far-left Haaretz daily.

Troubling questions

The charge of racist prejudice was echoed by the head of the left-wing Meretz faction, Zehava Gal-On. Under the emotive headline “Meretz leader equates Lapid to racist Beitar fans,” Ynet reported that Gal-On had posted the following attack on Lapid on Facebook: “Racism has become ordinary, so it seems natural that Yair Lapid is dismissing out-of-hand the Arab factions with the disparaging remark ‘We will not form an obstructing bloc with the Haneen Zoabis.’” Now, while I commend Lapid on his decision not join forces with the likes of Haneen Zoabi who openly identifies with Israel’s most implacable foes, this fierce assault on him from sources that only a short time ago would well have been considered almost political affiliates is remarkable.

Indeed, it raises serious questions not only regarding the authenticity of many of Lapid’s positions as presented to the public in his election campaign, but also to the gullibility, immaturity and political amnesia of the Israeli electorate – as well as a disturbing lack of depth and direction in the country’s political discourse.

After all, up until recently there was little daylight between the opinions Lapid was expounding and those held by the supporters of Meretz and the readers of Haaretz.

‘Palestinian flag will fly in east Jerusalem’

Thus, while in his election campaign, Lapid categorically rejected any division of Jerusalem, this was until recently not the case. Quite the opposite.

Kindly compare and contrast.

His manifesto waxes so poetic on the city that one might mistake it as being lifted from the platform of Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Bayit Yehudi: “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and its unity is a national symbol of the first degree.

Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli sovereignty, for Jerusalem is not just a place or a city but the center of the Jewish-Israel ethos and the holy place to which Jews have turned their eyes throughout the generations.”

Yet, only a few years ago (May 8, 2008), he expressed a very different position.

As Haaretz’s Barak Ravid acerbically points out in his trenchant “Will Yair Lapid divide Jerusalem?” (January 28, 2013): “In an interview to Germany’s Der Speigel from May 2008, Yair Lapid unequivocally supported the division of Jerusalem and fiercely attacked the Jewish West Bank settlers whose votes he courted in his recent election campaign.”

In that interview Lapid confidently asserted that “everyone knows how [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] will end,” approvingly forecasting that “the Palestinian flag will fly on public buildings in east Jerusalem.”

Endorsing ‘the right to hate’

Lapid’s refusal to forge any alliance with the anti-Zionist Arab parties is a welcome development.

However, some might that it strikes a discordant note vis-a-vis sentiments he stridently expressed in the past.

For example, in an article titled “The right to hate” (Ynet, May 30, 2009), he fiercely attacked those supporting legal sanctions against Israeli citizens who publicly reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state or mark Independence Day as a day of mourning. He thus implicitly, but unequivocally, endorsed their right to commemorate the establishment of their own state as a catastrophe – a position that Haneen Zoabi would eagerly embrace.

Interestingly, others on Lapid’s Yesh Atid list, such as former journalist Ofer Shelah, have expressed harsh criticism of any legal restrictions being placed on Israeli citizens articulating their grief at Israel’s victory in 1948 over its enemies, and at its success in foiling their intention to annihilate it.

In an article, “The right is overcome by fear,” published almost contemporaneously with Lapid’s (NRG, May 31, 2009), Shelah, who is slated to be charged with charting Yesh Atid’s political/security positions, somewhat abstrusely, tried to dismiss any legal restrictions on public commemoration of sorrow at Israel prevailing over the Arabs’ attempt to destroy it, as akin to previous legal attempts to prohibit homosexuality. Go figure.

Metamorphosis on settlers?

The fact that Lapid chose to launch his campaign in Ariel, a city located well across the Green Line, together with his statement that “there is no map on which Ariel isn’t a part of the state of Israel,” reflects a stunning metamorphosis in his former vehemently adversarial attitude to the settlers and the settlements.

After all, in the not too distant past, Lapid regularly lambasted the “settlers” for virtually every malaise afflicting the country and its citizens.

In the previously mentioned Der Spiegel interview, he places equal responsibility on the settlers and the Arab terror organizations for any future loss of life. Judge for yourselves: “The greatest tragedy of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is that everyone knows how it will end.... The only unanswered question is how many more people will have to die along the way. And so we will fight against the extremists on both sides, including our extremists, the settlers.”

As late as February 10, 2010, in an article titled “Do settlers care about us?” he implies that the real threat to Israel is not its enemies, but “4 percent of Israelis,” i.e. the settlers, who endanger all the others who “must bear the results of a religious ideology they do not share.”

According to Lapid, the settlers are to blame for a litany of ills: “disintegration, international isolation, and the loss of our national identity.”

And of course it is the settlers’ fault, not Palestinians’, that “so much of our energy is invested in a struggle with the Palestinians [which] exacts a heavy price, and keeps on increasing with every failed round.”

Infuriating arrogance
 
Last week, I pointed out that Lapid used his widely read column to berate the opponents of the 2005 disengagement, warning of the dire consequences and unbridgeable rift that would result, if they succeeded in persuading the public that expulsion of Jews from Gaza should be aborted. Six months after its completion, in “The essence of being Israeli” (February 15, 2006), he crowed, “Disengagement succeeded because Israelis remembered how to behave as a nation.”

However, several months later in “Things we couldn’t say during disengagement” (October 13, 2006), when its catastrophic failure was undeniably apparent, he published a galling admission that the disengagement “was never about the Palestinians, demography, the endeavor for peace, [or reducing] the burden on the IDF.”

With infuriating arrogance, Lapid revealed that the real reason for the traumatic displacement and deportation of thousands of productive citizens was that “the Israelis merely felt that the settlers should be taught a lesson in humility and perhaps in democracy, too.”

Yet now, the newly metamorphosed Lapid proclaims that not only must Jerusalem remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty as a “national symbol of the first degree,” but that the major settlement blocs including Ariel, Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumin (which presumably includes – gasp – the controversial E1 area) must do so as well.

Does Lapid – or anyone on his list – honestly believe that there is any serious Palestinian partner who would – indeed, could – countenance agreeing even to start negotiating on those terms – especially in light of the Lapid-endorsed disengagement, which conveyed an unequivocal message to the Arabs: If the Jews are confronted with sufficient violence and resolve, they will capitulate and yield everything for nothing.

Core vs peripheral constituency

Lapid’s past positions are important because it was they that precipitated the emergence of the political profile through which he garnered his initial political support and generated his initial electoral momentum. This is what generated his core constituency, which clearly was drawn to, and identified with, his harsh condemnation of the settlers and his identification of them as a source of much of life’s difficulties, both on the personal and the national level.

However, it appears that much of Lapid’s electoral success came from an additional source, the votes of those who up to the last minute remained undecided, and at the “eleventh hour” chose to cast their ballots for his Yesh Atid, because they found no other acceptable alternative.

It is more than likely that this last-minute surge of support – Lapid’s peripheral constituency – was influenced more by exposure to his later (campaign-generated) perspectives, rather than his earlier ones. Indeed, had not Lapid very publicly toned down his anti-settler animosity, it is quite likely that many of his later supporters would have voted Naftali Bennett – or abstained.

Risk of rupture

This is likely to place severe strains on the integrity of his party. Clearly it will be difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy both his core constituency, which was attracted to him by his previously articulated positions, and his peripheral constituency, which was drawn by his later ones. This is particularly true with regard to what is referred to as the peace process. After all, it is clear that no semblance of progress can be made in this regard if Yesh Atid upholds its commitments to its peripheral constituency to retain a united Jerusalem and the settlement blocs.

However, many in his core constituency – including dovish people among his MKs, such as former Meretz member Yael German, might find such “intransigence” unacceptable, especially if coupled with peer pressure from outside the party.

If the hardline Bayit Yehudi – together with a considerably more right-wing than heretofore Likud – form the next government, making “progress” with the Palestinians even more difficult, the potential for fracture in the newly coalesced Yesh Atid might become ever-more tangible.

Caveat emptor

Should Yesh Atid rupture and disperse, it would be merely par for the course. As Daphne Netanyahu points out in a telling review of the fate of “centrist parties” (“Israel’s own tyranny of cliches,” Maraah Magazine, January 2013), Israel’s political landscape is littered with the carcasses of such entities.

Prior to each election for the past 35 years some such party has arisen – and then fallen.

Such endeavors included Shinui, the Democratic Movement for Change, the Center Party, Kadima and now Yesh Atid.

Time and time again, the Israeli voter has been hoodwinked into voting for such allegedly centrist parties only to have them evaporate before his eyes.

Typically, these parties have fielded star-studded lineups of public figures of experience and prominence – from IDF chiefs of staff, generals, heads of security services, internationally renowned intellectuals, and seasoned politicians.

Some have soared in the polls only to fizzle out and vanish, usually after one, at the most two, terms, leaving behind only disappointment and disillusionment.

Two pointed questions thus arise: What reason is there to believe that the untried and untested Lapid can succeed, when so many more accomplished figures, with far greater accumulated achievement, have failed? And why does the Israeli electorate repeat a depressingly flat learning curve and persist in pursuing the elusive chimera of an illusionary “Center”?

Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
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