How Israel's political center moved right - opinion

Israel's political center started out on the left but has since moved to the right which is interesting for demographic and sociological reasons.

 THEN-PRESIDENT Reuven Rivlin is flanked in the front row by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid for a group photo of the newly inaugurated government last June.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THEN-PRESIDENT Reuven Rivlin is flanked in the front row by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid for a group photo of the newly inaugurated government last June.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The common perception of the political spectrum is that there is a Left, a Right and a Center. In two-party systems, political strategists will advise candidates to campaign to the Center to increase their base beyond their own camp. In multi-party systems, they will suggest campaigning within their camp to solidify their base, at the expense of their satellite parties within the camp.

Throughout time the middle of the Israeli political spectrum has moved rightward. If once the middle was Left and then it moved to the Center, it is now firmly in the Right with 72 of the 120 seats in the current Knesset representing right-leaning parties. The Right camp’s majority has become so large that it has splintered into two camps based on key disagreements. There are interesting reasons for this development, both demographic and sociological, but that goes beyond the scope of this piece.

I will discuss the strategies needed in this new system in which the middle is now Right-wing and where there are not two or three, but four camps to consider when campaigning. But first, some history.

The one-party system (1948-1976)

In the beginning, the State of Israel was dominated by the Zionist, socialist, Left side of the political spectrum. Mapai (The Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel), The Alignment and Labor led the Israeli governments formed from 1948 until 1977. The leader of the Mapai list was the only true candidate for prime minister. The middle of the political spectrum remained on the Left throughout this period.

The two-bloc (Right/Left) system (1977-2005)

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset plenum, May 11, 2022.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset plenum, May 11, 2022. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The second phase of Israeli electoral history began after the surprising “revolution” victory of Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party in 1977. Israel went from a largely one-party system to a political environment that was now dominated by a two-bloc system. The Right generally formed the government, yet many times their bloc did not have the required seats. In these circumstances a Likud-Alignment/Labor national unity government usually was formed, representing both sides of the spectrum. The religious parties did not seek national leadership, instead positioning themselves as kingmakers and participating in most governments of both blocs. Centrist parties came and went with little fanfare. The middle of the political spectrum had moved away from the Left and was now in the Center and moving closer to the Right.

The three-bloc (Right/Center/Left) system (2006-2020)

Just as the second phase started with the Likud’s victory that broke the one-party system, the third phase began in 2006 with centrist Kadima’s victory that broke the two-bloc system. This was the first victory of a non-Mapai/Alignment/Labor or Likud prime ministerial candidate. The Israeli political spectrum split from the two-bloc Right/Left system to a three-bloc Right/Center/Left system. The Likud would dominate the great majority of this period but to do so it required the assistance of both religious and centrist parties. The centrist parties received many seats but suffered from fluctuation and turnover. The Arab parties emerged with a double-digit parliamentary delegation yet remained firmly in the opposition. The religious parties gradually grew closer to the Right bloc during the second and third periods before being completely absorbed by them to form the Right-religious bloc. This important trend moved the middle of the political spectrum from the Center of the political map even further towards the Right. The middle had become Center-Right.

The four-bloc (Right/NNC/Center/Left) system (2021-Present)

The Israeli Right received most of the seats in each of the four elections conducted between 2019-2021 yet was unable to form a right-wing government. The closest the technical Center-Left bloc could get to a majority required the help of both the Arab parties and the “soft Right” parties Yisrael Beytenu and Derech Eretz. The religious parties had completely leapfrogged over the Likud to the Right side of the political spectrum and lost the balance of power they once had. The middle of the political spectrum was no longer Center-Right and had moved firmly to the Right. The Right was now big enough to be splintered into two camps.

The new national camp (NNC) was still being formed when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party terminated its commitment to the Likud in 2019. It was fortified with Yamina when Naftali Bennett announced his candidacy for prime minister that led to a split within his own list in 2021. Betzalel Smotrich and his friends – who had been in the opposition – moved back to the Likud camp. The new national camp expanded when Gideon Sa’ar, Ze’ev Elkin and others broke off from the Likud to form New Hope. With three parties on the Right running against their old bloc, they essentially created a new national camp.

In 2021, the Likud was unable to form a government because they lacked a majority without enlisting at least two of the three parties from this new national camp. The Center bloc, the Left bloc and one of the Arab parties made a strategic decision to form a government with the entire new national camp and Naftali Bennett, the leader of the new national camp, became prime minister.

The new national camp

This new national camp that emerged as a Knesset constituency of 20 seats in the most recent election represents the middle of the Israeli political spectrum. It is a new bloc and a new player in the Israeli political arena with a set ideology. This camp can appeal to citizens on both the Right and the Center of the political spectrum and become the dominant player for years to come due to its strategic placement on that spectrum.

The emergence of this new bloc, the new middle, is still fresh. Their values and policy objectives represent a new worldview and vision that encompasses the definition of what Israel is and what Israel should be doing. The new national camp is a new flavor that has been influenced by both adversaries in the old Right, antagonists in the Center and with some of its own new original ingredients. This new camp can offer comprehensive solutions to many politically homeless Israelis on security, diplomatic, economic and social issues. In my next piece, I will dive into what those solutions are.

The writer was a candidate on the Yamina list for the 24th Knesset election.