ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Testing the Political Center 6.5.04

Testing the Political Center

06 May 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Tommy Lapid, leader of the Shinui faction, appears to be leading his party down the same path of irrelevance as have others who attempted to build a center party over the past 56 years in Israel. Despite the opportunities at hand, center parties manage to self-destruct, and only have themselves to blame. Lapid brought his faction from 6 to 15 seats in the 2003 elections but appears determined to alienate potential supporters.

Over the years the centrists have been doomed to failure, but not for lack of trying. In proportional representation they have never managed to gain more than 20 Knesset members out of 120 seats (16.7% of the vote) in a general election, over half a century ago in 1951. During the fifties, the center, known as the General Zionists, split into several factions until they almost disappeared. After reuniting in 1961 as the Liberals and gaining 17 seats they split with most being absorbed into the Gahal bloc (later the right wing Likud). A few Independent Liberals remained and joined Labor.

In 1996, after disagreement over the Oslo Accords within Labor, the Third Way established itself, but over emphasized security and retention of the Golan by Israel to the detriment of all other major issues, and disappeared. Following close behind, the Center Party arose in 1999 out of the Likud, in opposition to right wing attitudes towards peace-making, joined Ehud Barak’s Labor government, and collapsed within two years.

Center parties have either split or shifted too far left or right, committing suicide. Lapid, a former razor sharp journalist, has done the opposite, bringing the party to 6 mandates in 1999 and 15 in 2003. Essentially representing the middle class, Shinui lends full support to Finance Minister Netanyahu’s economic reforms, even more than his own Likud party. Riding a wave of public anger at government spending on yeshiva religious education and draft deferments for the ultra-orthodox while condemning illegal (by Israeli law) caravan settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), Shinui hit a chord of public sympathy last year.

Furthermore, Lapid is known to be PM Ariel Sharon’s greatest supporter on the “Disengagement Plan” and has certainly taken a practical center stance most in tandem with the general public. He is tough on terror, but staunchly supports a two-state solution.

But Lapid is also justice minister and responsible for the committee appointing Supreme Court nominees. State prosecutor Edna Arbel is a candidate who is roundly reviled by the Right (including the Likud), but besides the political angle, she is accused of numerous irregularities, both ethical and legal, during her term of office, made public by Ma’ariv journalist Yoav Yitzchak. Lapid, an ardent Arbel supporter, maliciously called the accusations against her “terrorism” and refuses to allow for verification of the facts.

Being in a right of center coalition, Lapid understandably wants to prove he also has a foot in the Left in order to maintain center ground. He would be much better advised to investigate the accusations and come clean with Arbel’s record. Shinui will gain more by using discretion and searching for the truth, as opposed to seeking to balance itself onto the middle ground, regardless of the issue.

People want thinking, pragmatic, analytical, honest leadership. Should Shinui play too much politics it will fail the test of “integrity,” and Lapid will find himself following the path of others who attempted to build a centrist bloc.