Middle Israel: Are we there yet?

This country isn't as divided as its politicians make it seem.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
This country isn't as divided as its politicians make it seem. There is a broad consensus here; it simply needs dusting off. - "Let's give middle Israel its voice," Jerusalem Post, September 27, 1996 In the new politics … the heirs of today's major parties will cease to blabber about outmoded ideologies and instead join hands to represent the social mainstream's interests. - "The new politics," Jerusalem Post, June 12, 1998 A decade after coining the term Middle Israel - namely, mainstream Israel's quest to reconcile patriotism, tradition and free enterprise with peace, pluralism and compassion - and eight years after predicting the old political system's crumbling under Middle Israel's weight, people ask me whether the last election's was it. Do the decline of Likud and Labor, the rise of Kadima, the emergence of a post-territorial political agenda, and the improbable parachuting of seven unsung retirees into the middle of the public arena indicate Middle Israel's ultimate victory? They don't. HAVING ARGUED tirelessly for a decade that Israelis, unlike their politicians, were not split down the middle, but actually shared a broad consensus, I was often asked teasingly - in readers letters, during editors' meetings or while lecturing abroad - whether I knew another Middle Israeli besides myself. Well, after last week's election it appears this part of the debate has been resolved. The voters may not have backed massively one man or party, but they sure made several emphatic statements. First, with at least 60 percent of the Jewish vote backing those who had made the Gaza pullout happen, it is time Greater Israelites conceded that what most Israelis want vis-a-vis the Palestinians is a divorce. In '03 the voters explained this to the Left, and now to the Right. True, this quest may prove impractical, naive, even disastrous, but it is what the people want. It follows that those who still insist on ruling over and living among so many hostile Palestinians should do less talking about and more speaking to that vast majority which are not Greater Israelites. More deeply, the latter would do well to understand that ever since its introduction 70 years ago, Zionism has generally backed the partition idea. There is little new in its opponents' failure to conquer the mainstream, nor in their warnings that the rejection of their outlook would spell the end of the Zionist dream. The socialist idea has also been dealt a blow in this election. The massive effort to portray Netanyahu's personal setback in this election as an economic statement could hardly be more manipulative. With Labor, Meretz, Shas and the Retirees having garnered between them merely one-in-three votes, it is fair to say that most voters backed the Netanyahu reforms. Yes, the Likud won a mere one tenth of the electorate, but Kadima's Ehud Olmert and Meir Shetreet were alongside Netanyahu throughout his reform drive. In fact, the ruling party is much closer in its economics to Netanyahu than it is to Peretz. Lieberman is even more pro-market. Add to these the UTJ's active promotion of the Netanyahu reforms while chairing the Knesset Finance Committee, and you get about half the electorate actively backing the reforms. Finally, the retirees' voters limited their judgment to the pension system. Labor's neo-Marxist rhetoric impressed not one of them. Lastly, this election did not clearly back Kadima's convergence idea. With hardly one-in-four voters in its pocket, Olmert can doubtfully do it for now, at least as long as Hamas is in power. What, then, should he do with his victory? ON THE face of it, the task ahead of Kadima is simple: lead. But what is leadership? Is it about personalities or ideas? Is it about charisma, vision or resolve? Is it about pragmatism or idealism? Passion or poise? Calculation or intuition? Wisdom or inspiration? Sure, some have combined all these and more, but history does not routinely produce Roosevelts and Churchills, and even when it does it is in response to acute crisis, like the one out of which Ariel Sharon's premiership emerged. Anyone who knows the pragmatic, outgoing, joking and cajoling prime minister-elect knows he sees in himself neither an electrifier of the masses nor a conqueror of continents. Moreover, even had Kadima had one up its sleeve, its task would still not be to produce a Napoleon - Israel has already had its fair share of those - but to consolidate a political hegemony. There are three prerequisites to political hegemony: a towering founder, a sense of purpose and a natural following. Kadima already has in Ariel Sharon the kind of grand founder that de Gaulle was for France's Gaullists. The latter-day Sharon, the one that focused on restoring the pre-'67 consensus and introducing domestic reform, was both the magnet that attracted diverse people and the glue that kept them together. Now strange bedfellows like Shimon Peres and Tzahi Hanegbi will have to resist their conditioned reflexes and speak nothing but Sharon's centrism. Their shared sense of purpose is far from secure, and in fact doubtfully exists. In one respect, Kadima is off to a good start. With a critical mass of experienced politicians it is not Yigael Yadin's Dash, which had too many academics, or Tommy Lapid's Shinui, which had too many lawyers, or Rafael Eitan's Tsomet, which had too many electricians and Ecstasy dealers. Kadima, while endowed with first-rate academics like Uriel Reichman and Menahem Ben-Sasson, has enough career politicians who need no lessons in government, legislation or power peddling. If, as Aristotle wrote in Politic, "they should rule who are able to rule best," then Kadima may well represent, warts and all, what mainstream Israel currently wants, needs, and deserves. Yet for now they constitute barely a quarter of the Knesset, hardly enough to herald a hegemony as lasting as Labor's and Likud's were in their times. To get there, Kadima must quickly deliver something as consensual and solid as Ben-Gurion's creation of the state or Begin's peace with Egypt. Olmert's desire, to quickly leave a historic imprint with a massive dismantlement of settlements, even while his coalition must contain either Shas or Lieberman, seems impractical at best. Amir Peretz's quest, to undo Netanyahu's reforms, is a total non-starter, both politically and economically. Olmert and Kadima must therefore seek another cause, and they actually have one ready for activation: political reform. By introducing regional elections of some lawmakers, banning dual membership in the cabinet and Knesset, and allowing the prime minister to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, they can make Israeli politics cleaner, more efficient and more accountable. For such a reform Olmert does not need Shas, only Likud, Labor and Lieberman, all of whom already support various parts of it. With the retirees, who may also join in turn for a Pension Bill, such a reform will enjoy the backing of roughly three-in-four Knesset members, and eventually produce a different kind of Knesset, one that is less partisan, less pompous, more business minded, more locally oriented - and mostly Middle Israeli. Note: Several readers wrote me that Milovan Djilas ("An Israeli requiem to Yugoslavia," March 17) was not Jewish. They are right, and I stand corrected.