Analysis: Why centrist parties can keep things vague and still get votes

Centrist leaders tend to wow the public, but their platitude parties don't get the votes

Orly Levy Abecassis (L) and Benny Gantz (R) (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS & MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Orly Levy Abecassis (L) and Benny Gantz (R)
This election season has seen the rise of quite a few new parties, including several that seem to fall under the amorphous term “centrist.”
There’s a decades-long trend in Israeli politics of new centrist parties popping up and sweeping elections, probably starting with Yigal Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change in 1977, which helped throw the election to Likud for the first time ever. Since then, there have been others – like Shinui, Kadima and Yesh Atid.
It seems like a large swath of Israelis see themselves as centrists, but then grow disappointed by the parties that purport to represent them and stop voting for them in the next election or two.
Yesh Atid has held fast to centrism for its two terms in the Knesset, refusing to be pigeonholed and siding with either the Right or the Left on different issues. Polls indicate that they will outlast some of their predecessors, though they have not come close in months to the 19 seats that they had in 2013.
Despite the fact that the “centrist” job has already been filled since 2013, we have new parties sprouting from that middle ground, hoping to take votes from the Left and Right – and maybe Yesh Atid, as well.
IF THERE’S one thing these parties have in common, it’s their insistence on not saying very much.
There’s the Israel Resilience Party, led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who has been almost completely silent. No one knows what he and his party stand for. It may be early to expect a complete platform from any of the parties, but Gantz has not given even an inkling as to what he may think about the major issues in Israel – not security, not diplomacy, not the economy, nothing. Nor do we know who else is going to be on Israel Resilience’s list.
The goals of Gantz’s party, as listed in its registration papers, are so vague that he may as well have kept quiet. He wants to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, and he wants the following to be priorities: education, developing national infrastructure, agriculture, law, justice, public security, welfare policy, peace and security. Basically like almost everyone else.
Yet Gantz, in polls asking who is most suited to be prime minister, has coasted, on the laurels of his name and his credentials, into second place for both himself and his party; the Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are still in first place.
Israelis are mostly left to uncover old videos of Gantz expressing opinions, and even those don’t provide the level of clarity a voter should seek before choosing a party. The only remotely political thing Gantz has said, in a comment in English at author Amos Oz’s memorial service this month, is: “It’s all about Israel. Left, Right: doesn’t matter.”
SIMILARLY, when MK Orly Levy-Abecassis sought to explain what Gesher is about, she said that the party – whose name means “bridge” – will “bridge gaps between center and periphery... and it’ll bridge Left and Right.”
We don’t know how she plans to do that. Does she want to open up the market or increase government spending, and therefore, taxes? Levy-Abecassis has been an MK for 10 years, but most of them were spent as a backbencher in Yisrael Beytenu. Her key issues were child welfare and public housing, but she hasn’t really said much about either recently. And, in a video leaked to Kan, she avoided directly answering whether she supports a two-state solution.
The firmest things that Levy-Abecassis seems to have said so far are that she does not want to merge with other parties, and she doesn’t like Caroline Glick, the former Jerusalem Post columnist now running with the New Right.
Then there’s the Achi Yisraeli, led by haredi women’s college founder and Israel Prize winner Adina Bar-Shalom and former national security adviser Gideon Sheffer, among others.
They’re polling below the 3.25% threshold, but they released a short English platform this week, which exactly illustrates the point that new centrist parties are not quite able to explain what they’re all about.
Like Gesher, they want to “reduce the inequality” in the areas of education, health services and employment, but we don’t know how. They say security is “the single most pressing issue that our government must ensure,” but don’t share any strategy on that front, other than “engage with our neighbors.”
However, Achi Yisraeli did have some more specific things to say in two areas. Regarding religion and state, they seek to limit public transportation on Shabbat, engender greater respect for non-Orthodox Judaism and have religious or civil marriage be a choice, as well as encourage mixed schools for religious and secular children. And they have solid proposals for combating corruption, including term limits, increased transparency and establishing an independent body towards those ends.
So, they balanced out the platitudes with some real policy initiatives. And yet, they’re trailing far behind the other two new centrist parties, who seem to only have empty slogans to repeat, if they’re saying anything at all.
There are a few possible explanations for this phenomenon.
THE KNESSET and the government have fairly low trust ratings, and trust in political parties is even lower, according to polls by the Israel Democracy Institute. That translates into people being sick of the same political faces they see in the news all the time, and hoping that new ones won’t disappoint them. (True, Levy-Abecassis has been in politics for a decade, but not as someone who received that much attention, especially not in recent years.)
Some of that disappointment may be directed specifically at Yesh Atid, a centrist party that only lasted a year and a half in government, spending the rest of the time in the opposition, where it is difficult to accomplish much. Centrist voters could be fatigued and migrate elsewhere.
There’s also the element of personality politics. Say Israel Resilience, Gesher or Achi Yisraeli to Israelis on the street, and they probably won’t know what you’re talking about. But say Benny Gantz or Orly Levy-Abecassis or Adina Bar-Shalom, and there’s a much better chance they’ll not only know who these people are, but have opinions about them. All three of them seem to have been viewed fairly positively by the general population, though entering politics could taint that.
And Gantz’s meteoric rise – at least in the polls – can also be credited to the fact that Israelis consistently say in polls that national security is the most important issue to them. This is part of Netanyahu’s appeal; he’s long been considered “Mr. Security” and an expert on the subject, and he is the most experienced in government at the moment.
But for the people who can’t stomach Netanyahu and want to put security first, there’s Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff. And unlike Moshe Ya’alon, the former defense minister and IDF chief of staff who’s running and has been talking about his views on things for two years, Gantz’s silence has let such people fill in the blanks with their own ideas of what he must think.
With all of these factors in play, the bump in the polls for these platitude parties could continue for a while. It will be interesting to see, once they have to say things and add people to their lists, whether this will help them – or, in all likelihood, hurt them – because people will get a better idea of what they actually stand for.