The history of Israeli politics over the most recent 40 years is the rise and fall of parties claiming to represent the center, in order to do what they feel major parties cannot.
We are seeing it again.
Recent polls are showing a decline of Yair Lapid''s There is a Future from the 19 Knesset seats gained in last year''s election to 9 or 12 seats, depending on the poll, if an election were held in January of this year.
Tsipi Livni''s Movement is doing about the same as Lapid''s party, dropping from 6 to 3 or 4 seats.
Shaul Mofaz''s Kadima is still down in the dumps, with a slight improvement from 2 to 3 seats.
The established parties offer the voters a clearer ideology than the centrists. And perhaps even more important, they have organizations built up and maintained over the years. They have full time employees and volunteers who work to assure continued loyalty of their core voters, and recruit younger voters into the core.
The recent polls show Likud gaining, from 31 to 36 or 40 seats, Meretz, going from 6 to 10, Labor dropping slightly from 15 to 12 or increasing to 17 seats, Jewish Home (the current manifestation of the historic National Religious Party) and the two ultra-Orthodox parties remaining within one seat each of what they received in the election.
A large part of the explanation for the failure of the current claimants for the center lies in what they offered the voters, and the problems in achieving anything close.
Those promises boil down to three issues:
- What is called a political solution, or achieving peace with the Palestinians. It was Tsipi Livni''s major issue, and a secondary issue for Yair Lapid.
- Evening out the burdens to be shared with the Haredim, or getting the Haredim into the army or national service, and afterwards to work rather than a lifetime of study. This was especially prominent in Lapid''s campaign, joined with--.
- Improving the prospects of Israel''s middle class. According to Lapid, this would come partly from making the Haredim tax payers rather than benefit recipients, along with efforts to reduce the cost of housing for young couples and lessen the share of economic goodies going to the very rich.
Each of these issues faces its own set of hurdles. They differ from issue to issue, but in each case are sufficiently severe to make it unlikely that anything close to what was promised can be achieved.
All of the following assumes an absence of major change in Israel or its surroundings. That challenges those who see this as a land of miracles, but might persuade the result of us agnostics, skeptics, and cynics. We should expect a shuffling of personalities, and additional claimants with a bit of personal charisma, who create an instant party among friends and like thinkers claiming to be true centrists.
The major problem with the promise of doing more to achieve peace is the Palestinians. Their leadership has shown reluctant in the face of anything Israel has been willing to offer, even when Israel is pushed and the offer sweetened by its American patron.
Also involved here are the settlers and their friends, which is a population that expands in response to Palestinian violence or rejection, and has shown itself capable of limiting what Israel can offer.
The resistance of the Haredim, and their numbers, has been the major deterrent to dealing with them. Their rabbis are dead set against a significant change in the status quo, and capable of leading their highly disciplined flocks. Moreover, their political parties are large enough to be actual or potential coalition partners. The result is that the major parties are reluctant to push them too hard. Committees have dithered for years, and the Supreme Court has weighed in on the side of evening the burdens. The problems appear in defining and implementing inducements for young Haredi men to leave the academies, or sanctions for those who refuse military service or a civilian equivalent.
The economy may be working to get more Haredim out of the academies, via the pressures on large families to live within the means provided to them. The numbers are small, but may be making their own contribution to the waffling of the major parties. It''s easier to let nature take its course than to engage in a frontal assault on the rabbis.
The problem of the middle class is bigger than anything Israeli. Something similar is happening in many places. Yair Lapid could have written the section in Barack Obama''s State of the Union address that dealt with the same issue in the United States. Economies are changing. Technology is making a lot of middle class jobs obsolete, or freezing the rewards given to those still working as clerks, middle level managers, or in the various professions being squeezed by innovations. The creators of the new technology and new organizations are getting the big paychecks, bonuses, and stock options. At the same time, socialism has earned a bad name. Free marketeers, the Tea Party, and Libertarians are not in charge, but they are closer to what is happening than the socialists. Markets are making some people very rich, and leaving many more behind with salaries that do not keep up with the cost of living.
Management experts have learned to use the technology and have invented more efficient ways of organizing that shunt to the sidelines individuals aspiring to the middle class or upper middle class. Crowds of typists and telephone operators have been replaced by computers at the fingers of professionals, and automated answering and referring machines.. Call centers may be in third world boiler rooms connected to toll free numbers via satellite. Highly educated people who aspired to be well paid with generous benefits and prestige as physicians, professors, or lawyers find themselves getting by as general practitioners serving as the gatekeepers for specialists; adjuncts, visiting assistant professors, or lecturers without tenure at colleges and universities; associates at law firms, or working at temporary jobs for companies contracting their services to those with high pay and prestige.
Involved in the disappointments are the vast oversupplies of attorneys and lecturers. The people running law firms and universities can rely on hordes of low paid temporary employees to research briefs and teach classes.
Demands for equal rights by senior citizens--along with their political organizations and longer life spans--mean that lots of professionals are avoiding retirement into their late 70s and 80s, and clogging the opportunities for new graduates.
Just about everyone--here and elsewhere--supports improving the situation of the middle class. That''s where most of the people, taxpayers, and votes are. It makes sense politically. Many have promoted solutions, but no one has been able to claim significant progress.
It''s too early for Israelis to know who will be the next Yair Lapid or Tsipi Livni. Yet without great change, also not apparent on the horizon, someone seems likely to appear, sooner or later, with the same old issues re-packaged, with fresh slogans, likely to do well for an election or two, before it is apparent that they offer no solutions, and some other aspirant steps up with fresh slogans.