Political newcomer and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz announced the technical merger of his newly formed Israel Resilience party last week, together with the Yesh Atid Party founded in 2013 by then-political newcomer and television personality Yair Lapid. Scenario polls had indicated that combining the parties would give them a chance to garner more electoral votes than Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party.
The parties and most of the Israeli media have labeled the merger as a “centrist alliance” aimed at defeating the prime minister. The purpose of this label is to make Gantz and Lapid appear like the responsible middle of Israeli politics, distinct from the smaller and presently less relevant Labor and Meretz parties, and the ruling Likud, which has sat together in the past government with religious and pro-settlement parties to its right.
Yet despite the spin, the newly aligned parties do not form the center of the Israeli political spectrum. For the last 10 years, the center of Israeli politics has belonged to the ruling Likud Party and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the decade since Netanyahu has served as prime minister, he has formed governments together with every single party in the entire political spectrum (that survived more than one election cycle) with the exception of the far-left Meretz and Arab parties.
As such, Likud has ruled at the center of governments with nearly every party to both its left and right.
In the first three of four terms that Netanyahu served as prime minister, coalition math dictated that he had to form governments together with parties to his left in order to govern. Yet Netanyahu learned that left-wing parties are almost never loyal coalition partners. Recent history demonstrates that the only reason a left-wing party will enter into a government led by a party to its right, is to crash that same coalition at an opportune time in an attempt to regain power.
By contrast, Netanyahu has learned that right-wing and religious parties make relatively stable coalition partners, as compared to their leftist rivals, provided that the terms that are set out at during coalition negotiations are not violated. This experience has pushed Netanyahu to prefer ruling with a right-wing government.
Following the last election, Netanyahu’s Likud with 29 mandates formed a coalition of religious and right-wing parties sitting to his right on social and security issues that contained an additional 38 mandates. Together, the coalition at its strongest point had 67 ruling mandates. Parties to the left, including Zionist Union (a merger of Labor and Hatnua), Yesh Atid and Meretz, totaling 40 mandates were sent to the opposition, together with the 13 mandates of the Israeli Arab parties.
Removing the Arab parties from the equation, who are against the very tenets of a Jewish state, Likud sits squarely in the center of the Israeli political spectrum with 29 mandates. There are 38 mandates to the right of Likud and 40 mandates to the left.
To simplify complicated Israeli politics as much as possible, despite numerous economic and social issues that affect Israelis in their day-to-day lives, for the last three decades political labels of right and left have centered on security.
Particularly since the days leading up to the fateful Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, parties to the left have favored the creation of a Palestinian state on territories liberated by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, while parties to the right have vehemently opposed Palestinian statehood.
To the far-left of the Israeli spectrum, today the Meretz Party favors the creation of a Palestinian state by a complete unilateral withdrawal from the contested territories regardless of the Palestinian Authority’s ability or desire to maintain peace with Israel. On the right, the New Right Party led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, as well as the Jewish Home Party in its technical union with National Union and Otzma Yehudit, oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, regardless of the Palestinian Authority’s ability or desire to make peace.
Other parties within the spectrum fall somewhere in between the extremes.
In his first major foreign-policy address after returning to the premiership in 2009, Netanyahu expressed his willingness to enter into direct negotiations with Palestinians, with the stated goal of creating a demilitarized Palestinian state on much of the West Bank, provided that state fully recognized the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state—certainly not a classic right-wing view.
So why do left-wing parties in Israel claim that they are in the center?
Israelis have learned the hard way through trial and error that the Palestinian Authority has zero intention of making peace with a Jewish state, even though it would gain significant economic opportunities from doing so. Negotiations on multiple occasions revealed themselves to be a farce, while an ill-fated unilateral withdrawal did not lead to peace, but rather to dictatorial rule by the Hamas terror organization. Flourishing Jewish greenhouses and infrastructure in Gush Katif were turned into weapon-launching sites.
As such, the political ideology of the left, which calls for separation from the Palestinians has proved itself both impractical and morally bankrupt. Left-wing party leaders recognize, as does the Israeli electorate, that the Oslo peace process was a failure and that no willing peace partner exists across the table. As such, promoting the creation of a Palestinian state simply does not ring true with voters.
So left-wing parties have lost the trust of the electorate, and new parties have been formed attempting to distance themselves from the failed policies of the left. These new parties have attempted to brand themselves in the center.
In other words, as the left woke up from its peace stupor, it had no choice but to move towards the right in an attempt to remain relevant. Today’s self-named “centrist” parties state that “if there were a Palestinian peace partner, we’d be the ones to make peace, but since there isn’t, there’s nothing to talk about now.”
But just because these parties recognize that the right is correct doesn’t make them center.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.