A new feature has emerged in Israeli politics this election season: the evolution
of our political culture into a de facto two-party system similar to the
Republican and Democrat divide in the US, referred to here as the Right and the
There are indeed two sectorial groups outside this divide –
haredim and Arabs. The former, however, will join either of the two “parties,”
depending on which is willing to greater serve the interests of its sector,
while the latter always remains in the opposition.
It is true that these
two parties are divided into multiple mini-parties. However, the fact that the
two major parties (the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu) on the Right have amalgamated,
and the third (Bayit Yehudi) is running on the platform of being their coalition
partner, while on the Left, politicians are jumping from sub-party to sub-party,
avoiding a formal unification primarily because of ego, are all evidence of the
fact that the old multiple party system is dead.
Voters and politicians
are no longer loyal or bound to a sub-party but to the larger party bloc, and
shift their affiliations freely within this bloc without feeling any remorse or
nostalgia. The sub-party is but a means and a platform to serve them without any
ability to generate sustained loyalty.
Thus, for example, Amir Peretz can
wake up in the morning as one of the leaders of the Labor Party and go to sleep
at night as one of the leaders of The Tzipi Livni Party (Hatnuah), itself formed
by Livni, the former leader of the Kadima Party. Those who see all of this as
opportunism fail to realize the profound shift within Israeli political culture
from the multiparty to the twop-arty system.
Similarly, the dramatic
growth in popularity of the heretofore religious-Zionist sectorial party, the
Bayit Yehudi, with the support of secular former Likud loyalists, the
significant infiltration into the Likud Knesset candidates list of individuals
and ideologues who are using the Likud base to mainstream positions which in the
past were the domain of the extreme Right, and on the Left, with the
disintegration of the popular base of Kadima, the largest party in the last
Knesset, and its redistribution within the Center-Left “party,” are again
evidence of the fact that the electorate is thinking within the context of a
two-party model, with the sub-parties being merely the vehicle du jour to best
represent their core commitments.
While this emergence of a two-party
system generates greater clarity for the electorate and promises stability for
the government, the fact that, as distinct from the United States, it is based
on sub-party components, creates a foundation for a particularly toxic and
Because most voters are already clearly aligned
within one of the two blocs, the main campaigns of the sub-parties are not
against those within the other bloc but within their own. This reality generates
a move to unnecessary radicalism, as each sub-party attempts to brand itself as
In the current election season, the right-wing “party,” which will
win the next election, is plagued by a competition amongst its sub-parties as to
who is more “pro-settlement,” more “anti-Mahmoud Abbas” and more vociferous in
protecting and caring for the “Jewish Israel.”
In the past, the
conventional wisdom was that you could only win an election in Israel from the
Center. While Binyamin Netanyahu, from the perspective of those on the Left, is
clearly on the Right, the cornerstone of his political success was his laying
hold to the position of the Center- Right. His embrace of Bennie Begin, with his
steadfast commitment to democracy and liberalism, and Dan Meridor, a
longstanding supporter of both of these values, as well as moderation in foreign
policy, together with his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech and ongoing vetoes of
most of the anti-democratic legislation put forward by the Knesset, all served
to make Netanyahu both electable and acceptable to a broad spectrum of Israelis
on both sides of the political divide.
In this campaign, however, not
only is Netanyahu going into the electoral battle without the above allies, but
more and more of his party members believe that the most effective way to combat
the Bayit Yehudi is to outflank it on the Right. In this context, the Bar-Ilan
speech accepting a two-state solution in theory is now a liability, and
spokespeople for the heretofore center-right Likud allow themselves to vocalize
a nationalistic, xenophobic and at times even anti-democratic rhetoric that in
the past never would even have been considered.
One of the lessons of the
recent US election is that you cannot win the country from either extreme, and
the Republican Party, if it wants to return to power, will have to look
carefully at the consequences of a platform that represents the radical Right
within the party. The advantage that the Republican Party has is that it lost
the election. There is nothing like the harsh reality of failure to generate
reevaluation and refocus.
In the Israeli dual-party, sub-party system,
however, such a corrective does not exist. The right-wing party will win
on the basis of a center-right majority within Israel. However, this
center-right will be governed by individuals and platforms which represent
extreme sub-party ideologies.
There are some who find comfort in the
belief that election rhetoric does not represent day-after Election Day
policies. This is the case only when there are moderating forces at the table.
In our frenzy to win the sub-party battles, however, we have stacked the deck
against moderation, and I am fearful that we lack the internal forces to heal
As we move toward the end of the election season it is
critical that Center-Right voices emerge with moral and ideological clarity,
compelled by a vision of what will be good for the country, regardless of its
significance in the sub-party conflict. It will be a mistake if these voices
remain silent, waiting to emerge in the safety of the day after the elections. A
culture, rhetoric and public discourse about policy are taking root in these
elections which will not be easily uprooted. As our rabbis teach us, if not now,
when? Every day that this discourse is allowed to rule dramatically changes not
the outcome of this election but the future of Israeli society.
sub-parties on the Center-Left must enter into the fray, not as voices in the
opposition but as unabashed coalition partner aspirants. The cynics will say
that in doing so they are expressing a void of values and a commitment to power
Nothing could be further from the truth.
is about using power to actualize ideology. In the new Israeli two-party system,
we don’t need a national unity government.
We need sub-parties from both
“parties” to join together to save us from ourselves.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel
Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the
Institute’s iENGAGE Project – iengage.org.il.