Yair Lapid's shot at bringing the political center to the forefront

After a century in the shadows of Left and Right, liberal Zionism hopes to benefit from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s woes.

Yair Lapid (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yair Lapid
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“A KIND of pestilence,” wrote Chaim Weizmann of socialist Zionism, deriding its believers as “a national group hailing internationalism with childish yells” and dismissing their cause as “an outrageous mixture of meaningless phrases and sheer stupidity.”
The towering statesman who would be Israel’s first president eventually tempered his rhetoric and also struck an alliance with Labor that lasted decades, but the road he traveled between Left and Right remained a relatively leaderless political dead end.
Now, as a battle-hungry Yair Lapid eyes an embattled Benjamin Netanyahu’s political estate, the aspiring prime minister is out to end liberal Zionism’s century of winless life in the shadows of Left and Right.
Weizmann’s rivals, David Ben-Gurion from the Left and Vladimir Jabotinski from the Right, created party machines that later produced Israeli politics’ pair of alternate hegemons. The man in the middle never built his own party. The prestige Weizmann enjoyed as the Balfour Declaration’s engineer secured his status as the Zionist movement’s king, prophet and high priest.
That is how the Zionist liberals who grazed in the no man’s land that sprawled between Labor and the Revisionists ended up without the kind of charismatic leader their alternatives enjoyed.
Even so, the Zionist centrists were not marginal. Their main party, the General Zionists, drew a sizable following already in the 1930s, including the leaders of America’s and Poland’s Jews, Abba Hiller Silver and Yitzhak Gruenbaum.
Yesh Atid Chairperson, Yair Lapid, in a speech in the Knesset against religious coercion by the government, December 14, 2017. (Facebook/Yesh Atid)
Like Weizmann, the General Zionists opposed Labor’s economic socialism, the Revisionists’ political militancy and the religious Zionists’ Orthodox coercion. And unlike kibbutz members Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, they inhabited the metropolis unapologetically and felt good with its bourgeois culture and free enterprise.
That is why, despite their lack of larger- than-life leaders, the General Zionists along with a smaller liberal party, the Progressives, between them won one-tenth of the first Knesset’s seats.
By the second election in 1951, this already sizable following was doubled, reflecting public anger at the Labor-led government’s rationing of basic foods and general stifling of economic freedom.
“Let us live in this country,” demanded the General Zionists’ election slogan, alluding to secular city folks’ quest for material prosperity and personal freedoms.
It took a year, but the centrists became Ben-Gurion’s coalition partner, and then imposed a retreat from the rationing system and inspired other economic measures, including negotiations for German reparations.
Those early Israeli centrists were frequently immigrants from Germany, like the General Zionists’ Peretz “Fritz” Bernstein, who was Israel’s first minister of trade and industry, or Gershom Schocken, publisher and editor of “Haaretz,” who was also briefly a lawmaker for the Progressives.
As self-made lawyers, doctors, engineers and businessmen, they believed in capitalism as fervently as kibbutzniks back then believed in socialism, and sought the separation of religion and state as enthusiastically as the pope hails Jesus.
Shared by a broad electorate, this thirst for normalcy generated by the 1960s Israel’s first supermarkets, beauty salons and skyscrapers, and multiplied its nightclubs, private cars and overseas vacations.
Even so, the frequently post-heroic and hedonistic centrists ended up in the arms of Menachem Begin, whose Herut party merged with the Liberal party that had earlier weld- ed the General Zionists and the Progressives. It was one of Begin’s most brilliant moves, a clever capture of a useful ally that Labor had abandoned, underestimating its public appeal.
It was, by then, 1965, and the centrists’ 17 years in the shadows of the Left would give way to a new era in the shadows of the Right.
BEGIN’S HISTORIC defeat of Labor in 1977 is rightly seen as driven by poor and tradition- al populations that Labor had disenfranchised.
Yet Begin’s victory was also helped twice by the historic Center: first, by his merger with the Liberal party, and second, by the rise of a new party, Dash, whose 15 seats came mostly from upscale Labor voters. Dash picked up from where the General Zionists left off, championing free enterprise, separation of religion and state and electoral reform, so that voters would elect lawmakers personally and by district.
The Center, then, was pivotal in Israeli politics’ journey from Right to Left. Moreover, the following decade’s economic shift from socialism to capitalism, through the 1985 Stabilization Plan, happened while the finance minister, Yitzhak Modai, a millionaire who owned a cosmetics factory, was the leader of Likud’s Liberals.
Even so, the Centrists who helped pave Likud’s road to power vanished. Dash died in its infancy and the Liberals were swallowed up within the Likud by the 1990s. The Centrist electorate, however, was alive and well.
That is how Tommy Lapid won 15 Knesset seats in 2003, and that is how his son won 19 seats in 2013. The Center, then, was pretty much always there, but it never won an election.
The arguable exception was Kadima, which in 2006, defeated both Likud and Labor, promising a middle road between their legacies. Then again, Kadima was founded by veterans of the system’s Right and Left and not by lifelong liberals who spent decades fighting socialism, populism and religious coercion. Then again, Kadima’s victory proved that most voters were less polarized than Israel’s historic political system.
The Center’s success over the decades was driven by varied circumstances: in 1951, it was food rationing; in 1977, it was Labor’s corruption and the Yom Kippur War’s bitter aftertaste; in 2003, it was revulsion with ultra-Orthodoxy’s political gains; and in 2006, it was a quest for closure on the Palestinian front.
The common denominator among these settings was that they were purely Israeli. The Center’s current assault is different.
YESH ATID – Hebrew for “there is a future” – is a creature of its time.
Born in 2012, the local circumstance behind its zenith was the protest movement that sent thousands to the streets in spring 2011 demanding cheaper housing, tuition and food. In this regard, the party is a latter-day variation of the consumerist theme that fueled the General Zionists’ success in 1951.
That is why when it joined Netanyahu’s third government in 2013, it took the civic ministries of finance, education, health, science and social affairs, avoiding defense or foreign affairs.
Moreover, Lapid parted with the elitist legacies of Weizmann, the General Zionists and the millionaires who joined Begin.
Unlike his father’s troupe last decade – an affluent, secular and almost exclusively Ashkenazi lot – Yair Lapid’s includes former Dimona mayor Meir Cohen and former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levi, both products of the Middle Eastern immigrations, and Pnina Tamano-Shata, an Ethiopian-born lawyer.
This is besides Lapid’s enlistment of religious figures like Shai Piron, to whom he handed the Education Ministry; Rabbi Dov Lippman, whose origins are ultra-Orthodox; Aliza Lavie, a modern-Orthodox feminist and author; Elazar Stern, a retired IDF gen- eral who is modern-Orthodox; and academic Ruth Calderon, a professor of Judaism, who stunned ultra-Orthodox lawmakers when in an address to the plenary she taught a passage from the Talmud.
This is not what the General Zionists and its many successors brought to Israeli politics.
LAPID’S EFFORT clearly transcends the cause of cheaper cottage cheese, which animated the 2011 protest movement; rather, he woos a cross section of Israeli society minus its Arabs, whom Lapid has all but ignored, while saying of the Palestinians “we need to build a high wall and get them out of our sight.”
Pandering to the broad electorate, which emerged disillusioned from the Oslo Accords, this kind of rhetoric is designed to do in Israel what newly rising political forces have been doing this decade elsewhere in the West.
During Yesh Atid’s six years of existence, political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic have steadily lost their following, relevance and prestige, making way for unpredicted alternatives.
In the US, Donald Trump’s victory defies the Republican Party no less, and maybe more, than the Democratic Party he defeated at the ballots. Trump’s arrival at the White House before having held any public office is exactly how Lapid arrived at the Treasury.
In Britain, twice in the last three general elections voters deprived both major parties of a parliamentary majority and, in the interim, they pulled Britain out of the European Union in defiance of their prime minister at the time.
In France, voters last year ditched the entire party system that Charles de Gaulle bequeathed. In Italy, the postwar political order is crumbling, pressured by populists and nationalists crowned by the politically amorphous Five Star movement.
In Sweden, the Social Democrats who dominated politics for a century now head a minority government. In Germany, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany’s growing pressure has forced the postwar hegemons, the Christian Democrats and social Democrats, into a marriage of little love and much fear. And the list of politically quaking lands goes on, to Austria, Poland, Hungary and others.
True, in one major respect Israel’s situation is different: it has pretty much solved its illegal immigration problem, for better or worse. By fencing its border and then sending back to Africa some 20,000 of an estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants, Israel has contained this problem, shrinking it from a security menace and social predicament to a moral dilemma.
Europe, by contrast, cannot address the immigration challenge as swiftly as Israel because its borders are much longer and complex. America’s challenge, while simpler than Europe’s, will nonetheless also continue to pressure its disoriented political establishment.
Still, in terms of the public’s diminishing trust in the veteran political establishment, Israel’s situation may prove reminiscent of what has given rise to Trump and Emmanuel Macron, and humbled the likes of Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Italy’s Matteo Renzi. That, at least, is what Lapid hopes all will agree on the morning after the next election which, whenever it ends up taking place, will likely be dominated by the multiple allegations Netanyahu has come to face.
Hoping to emerge as Israel’s own Macron – whose executive experience prior to conquering France was also a brief stint as finance minister – the telegenic Lapid is counting on Netanyahu’s legal situation to cause broad public revulsion, on the scale of the scandals that unseated Labor back in 1977.
Another way for Lapid to reach power would be to cobble together coalitions, the way Begin did when he coopted the Liberal Party, and the way Lapid might do by welding together the likes of Labor leader Avi Gabbay and Likud renegades Moshe Kahlon and Moshe Yaalon.
There is, of course, another way for the political Center to finally win, which is to produce a leader who would tower head and shoulders above all the rest, but that scenario is out of the question. Even Yair Lapid understands he is no Weizmann.