The surprising emergence of Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party with 19 seats in the Jan. 22 Israeli elections has caused a number of western journalists to re-evaluate their belief that Israel had been shifting to the right.
Polls throughout the campaign undermined this view, despite some rightward movement within already conservative political factions.
Indeed, the “rightward” drift isn’t true of Israeli society as a whole, the “rational centre” (as some Israeli analysts have termed it) of which has been steadily represented for many years by about two-thirds of the populace. This is the two-thirds that supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians, but believes, in equal numbers, that such a deal is not possible with the current Palestinian leadership and with Hamas ruling Gaza. That’s why, in this election, only 18 per cent of Israeli voters placed negotiations with the Palestinians as their top priority for the government.
What filled that spot for almost half of voters were socio-economic issues: jobs, wages, affordable housing, shared citizen responsibilities, etc. These are the same issues that brought out half a million people to protest in the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities in the summer of 2011. These are the voters who felt their concerns were not adequately addressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s Lapid who has taken up their cause and pledged not to abandon it if he joins a new government.
Western journalists are now playing catch-up to the long-standing and newsworthy realities of Israeli society, which have been largely overlooked by the familiar coverage of political elites and conflict-driven stories involving the Palestinians. Just a couple of years ago, veteran Jerusalem-based NBC News correspondent Martin Fletcher remarked that Israel is the most covered but least understood country in the world. Fletcher admitted that he himself had contributed to this lack of understanding by failing, along with his colleagues, to adequately report about Israeli society.
In the immediate aftermath of the election and with Lapid in the international spotlight, a couple of Israeli analysts tackled some common myths about both Israelis and their politics. In a Jan. 23 interview with CTV News, prominent Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi, describing Lapid as the big winner of the election, noted: “We tend to think of Israeli society as divided between left and right, but there is a very large centre that is hawkish on security but dovish on territory. Lapid managed to project this centrist sensibility.”
In a piece written that same day for Tablet magazine, Klein Halevi explained what constitutes the Israeli centre (and he didn’t exempt the Israeli media, either, from failing to correctly portray it): “The Israeli media is speaking relentlessly of an even divide between the left-wing and right-wing blocs. That’s nonsense. Yesh Atid isn’t a left-wing party; half of its voters define themselves as right of centre. Instead, the rise of Yesh Atid affirms the vigour of the centre. Despite the historic failure of every centrist party – Kadima, the last attempt, virtually disintegrated in this election – centrist Israelis continue to seek a political framework.”
The centre thus includes the centre-right along with the centre-left. By this definition, many who support Likud certainly belong to the centre. It may come as a surprise to learn, for instance, that according to last December’s Israel Democracy Institute/Tel Aviv University Peace Index, 52 per cent of Likud voters support the two-state vision.
In a Jan. 24 Ottawa Citizen opinion piece, Barry Rubin challenged another common misperception: “Elections are not between left and right ideological blocs.” Such blocs do exist, but they constitute only one-third of the parties (Arab parties, far right, far left, and religious). Rubin observed: “The remaining two-thirds of the electorate votes roughly in a spectrum that coincides with that of Canada, and it is their choices that provide the main governing parties. They constitute five parties ranging from the centre-right Likud of Netanyahu, through three centre-centre parties, to the moderate left Labour party.”
Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.