The black hole of Israeli democracy

Talk of a new party has become all the rage, but political history shows such movements lack institutions and internal democracy, and tend to have a short shelf life.

Tommy Lapid, the late father of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, founded the Shinui Party and won 15 Knesset seats in the 2003 general election (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tommy Lapid, the late father of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, founded the Shinui Party and won 15 Knesset seats in the 2003 general election
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A poll on June 2 found that a new political party led by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon would tie the Likud if an election were to be held now. It builds on another survey taken in late May that showed a party led by a troika of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, Ya’alon and former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar would defeat Netanyahu.
The excitement around a centrist party run by Ya’alon gained more attention at the Herzliya Conference when he lashed out at the government for “inciting Jews against Arabs, Right against Left, and between different tribes, all in order to survive in the government and to get another month or another year.”
For two decades Israelis have been searching in vain for a new politics that is untethered from the old Left and Right which have dominated the country for its first five decades.
A succession of centrist political parties have come and gone, including Shinui and Kadima – the only one of those parties to actually gain power – while others have been briefly successful for one election and then tended to fade. Yet the search for the center is an endless ritual, with true believers constantly asserting that a new party will be found.
Tal Niv at Haaretz wrote this week that “Ehud Barak, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and others will hook up with Tzipi Livni to create a wave of political protest that will lead to... new elections and the establishment of a stable centrist government.”
Eylon Aslan-Levy at the Matzav Blog claimed that there is a “tantalizing prospect” whereby “it is not impossible that a centrist, secular coalition could be on the cusp of winning an outright Knesset majority.”
In his calculus, based on a Teleseker poll, Yesh Atid would bring Yair Lapid 20 seats, and he would partner with a Ya’alon’s imaginary party and others.
Dr. Ofer Kenig, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, says that a large centrist electorate doesn’t identify with either the Likud or Labor. “If you look at the demand side, there is a demand within the electorate for a kind of centrist party, probably addressing those people who are more moderate than the Likud but still do not share the socioeconomic views of the Labor Party.”
He traces the attempts to forge a centrist party to the Center Party that emerged with six mandates in the 1999 elections and then declined to three in 2002. Headed by former Northern Command major-general and defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, it sported Likud politician Dan Meridor and the late former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
The roots of the centrist crisis began in 1996.
Since 1948 the largest party had always gained over 40 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. However, in 1996 the Likud received only 32 seats, and the major parties have never recovered. A reform for direct election of the prime minister, which was supposed to cement a two-party system, actually led voters to support a multiplicity of tiny parties that popped up like mushrooms.
In 2003, Shinui received 15 seats. By 2006 Shinui was gone, replaced by Kadima (29 seats) and the Pensioners (seven). Yesh Atid received 19 in 2013, and a new party run by Livni received six seats.
In the last election, Yesh Atid declined to 11 seats, while a new party run by Kahlon named Kulanu received 10 seats.
Why do these parties fail? “I think that the shortcoming is that they are not really parties that had institutions or internal democratic life. They were built around the charisma of one leader, and when the leader went away, we didn’t see much continuation.
And you can connect that with phenomenon of political personalization in Israel,” argues Kenig.
Most of these parties have been built around a single figure, including Yair Lapid and his father, Tommy Lapid, who both have started parties.
There is also a phenomenon of many centrist politicians emerging from the Likud. Most of the Kadima MKs were former Likudniks, as was the case with the Center Party, Kulanu, Livni and the presumptive new party of Ya’alon and Sa’ar.
This shows that “King Bibi,” as Netanyahu has been called, is not so much a kingmaker as a progenitor of other parties. “A lot of the centrist parties we saw were a direct of consequence of Netanyahu’s firm grip, and he drives away potential heirs. With no real viable options in the Likud, the alternative is to walk away and try to establish a new party,” says Kenig.
There are around a million centrist voters, according to election results. They are concentrated in the more affluent Coastal Plain, where cities such as Tel Aviv gave 18 percent of their votes to Yesh Atid and Kulanu. Yesh Atid won around 20% of cities such as Holon, Ramat Gan and Herzliya in 2013. This demographic is relatively young, Jewish, more secular and less rooted in political tradition, due to urbanization, whereas kibbutzim, development towns, haredi and Arab towns and the communities over the Green Line are rooted in more traditional parties.
The populist-centrists feel comfortable giving their votes to new parties each election cycle because surveys show that up to 71% of Jewish voters are not active in a political party.
By almost the same margins, according to an Israel Democracy Institute poll in 2015, voters say they distrust politicians and the Knesset in general. The 2011 social justice protests were a manifestation of this demand for change among a younger, urbanized, post-political audience. Because the IDF remains one of the more trusted institutions among Israelis, many of these voters choose parties that include a sprinkling of security bigwigs.
The result is short-term gains for parties run by one person promising both competence on security and social and economic changes.
However the policies of this centrist demographic are neutered in every coalition agreement, and plans to reform such issues as religion and state, housing, Beduin land claims, the peace process or army service are all put off for political expediency. The more voters vote for the Center, the less they receive in terms of their demands, whether it is social justice or cheap apartments or an end to the conflict and the right to civil marriage.
The electorate punishes the centrist parties that don’t deliver, creating an endless cycle of brief one-hit wonders.
For Kenig, this phenomenon is not a threat to democracy but rather an unstable and ungovernable system. The Israel Democracy Institute has supported a political reform that would see the head of the largest Knesset faction automatically become prime minister.
It’s unclear how this would solve the search for a populist center among voters. There is no evidence those voters will drift back to the traditional parties or that the new centrist parties will put down institutional roots and begin to have internal democracy.
This means that the votes of almost a million Israelis pave the way for governing instability and allow Netanyahu, who has thrived in the decades of small parties, to hold on to power through coalition agreements and trading one of these parties for another each election cycle.