A 'Centrist' Prime Minister? Probably Not in 2015

Expert says left-right dichotomy in Israel is exaggerated, but there is not enough of a 'gravity center' to form a centrist bloc.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Yair Lapid (file)
Yair Lapid (file)
Ben Kelmer/Flash90

Israelis are now less certain of their government's future than they were just a week ago, after successive polls have found that Likud is consistently behind the Zionist Camp of Labor and Hatnua by a widening margin, and could be four seats behind their left-wing rivals on Election Day.

To learn about the possible outcomes, Arutz Sheva spoke with  Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute, who said the "centrist" parties are not necessarily going to form a bloc with the left.

"I have argued against this designation" of a left-center bloc, said Hermann. "For the last three or four years Israelis have been calling this the center-left, but centrist parties are not always on the left on certain issues."

Two years ago, Yair Lapid left his news desk to follow in his father's footsteps with Yesh Atid, taking pains to frame his list as being in the Israeli political center, offering a diverse set of candidates but painstakingly trying to get a long list of politically inexperienced figures that could reach a consensus on a wide-reaching platform.

Now, with the entrance of the ostensibly centrist Kulanu party under Moshe Kahlon, there is the possibility that a center part of the spectrum is becoming more defined. When asked if the center was starting to coalesce into its own bloc, the professor opined that this has yet to occur.

"They (Yesh Atid and Kulanu) are not in the position right now where they have heavy enough of a center of gravity that a government might rely on. It could happen down the road but they have to buck the trend and do not fade away like other centrist parties."

There is a very unlikely extreme scenario where Likud could get the lowest number of seats predicted for the party – 18 according to internal Likud polls, and Yesh Atid grabs the undecided vote on Election Day like it seemed to have done in 2013. If so, Yesh Atid has a very slim chance of eclipsing the Likud.

Hermann did not think that would happen, but still she addressed that even if in theory Lapid and Kahlon’s factions combined won more seats than either the Likud on one side or the Zionist Camp on the other, the divisions between Lapid and Kahlon are too wide right now to make a centrist government a viable one.

"The center is not aligned agenda-wise to form a government. Assuming they do come out ahead - which I do not see happening - Kahlon is still significantly more to the right than Lapid. Lapid tried very hard to form an alliance with him, but Kahlon refused early on. Right now, Kahlon is firmly on the right side of the spectrum and closer to the other right-wing parties on socioeconomic issues."

Her main problem with the idea that the center could form a viable bloc to challenge the dichotomy of left-right in Israel is that this bloc does not have a consistent ideology or theoretical platform, despite attempts by Lapid to outline one two years ago. However, she did agree that the theory of a left-right divide in Israel is not an accurate one.

Hermann said "we should stop thinking along the lines of left-right because for many years already we've seen that this idea doesn't hold water on many political issues. There are too many different types of parties and too many different types of voters who are neither here nor there."

Evidence of this type of political flexibility might be seen in the blocking alliance that Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett formed two years ago to guarantee they could push legislation requiring IDF service from haredi Israelis. The divide between the two parties though has seemed to have widened since that legislation was pushed through the Knesset.

Two years removed from the surprise alliance that challenged conventional politics in Israel and the surge in support for Lapid and Bennett, it might seem the excitement has been removed from this election cycle. However, Hermann argued though that on the left-side of the spectrum, just the last few days show that is not the case.

"Things changed over the last couple weeks," she says. "When the Prime Minister decided to have elections people were caught by surprise and weren't convinced by the purpose. People felt it came only to serve the interests of the Prime Minister to have a more compliant coalition."

The recovering poll numbers for Yesh Atid, the optimism of Arab Joint List supporters and the slipping of Likud in the polls might imply that on the left side of the spectrum - and in the center - there is plenty of excitement. Prof. Hermann points to another recent event that might have changed the dynamic of the elections.

"With the progress made in the public debates, I think people have become more engaged. The younger left-of-center crowd and the numbers involved is much higher. Also, the money coming in from that zone on the spectrum is different - in the past we had not seen people there donating a lot (to campaigns)."

Hermann does not think that it was Prime Minister's Netanyahu's absence from the debates that is hurting him, nor the speculation Israelis might have actually been turned off by his Congress speech and differences with the Obama Administration.

She cites the monthly Peace Index that gauges Israelis on critical issues, which in February found that only 41% of Israelis felt Netanyahu's speech was for campaigning purposes, a drop from 67% in January. So if there was Israeli turnoff by the Prime Minister's motives, it likely is not what might be deflating Likud's balloon.

Some thought Netanyahu wanted to avoid a debate to prevent a repeat of his poll drop in the 1999 election against Ehud Barak, but Hermann is not sure this was the motivation to avoid it, nor his reason for declining a challenge by Yitzhak Herzog to a one-on-one debate.

"Herzog is not a dangerous rival in debates because Bibi (Netanyahu) is much more proficient. I think that once you allow your challengers to be on the same footing as Prime Minister, your rivals can only benefit."

Asked if the phenomenon where Israelis find themselves stuck in the aforementioned political blocs was frustrating - that their first choice for Prime Minister was almost always guaranteed to fall behind the leader of Likud or Labor - she said the feeling likely does not come up so often.

"It goes back to the system we have in Israel with these blocs that we have. If you prefer certain blocs, you either vote for the largest party in the bloc or one of the side parties."

For people in the center who are unhappy with the choice of either Netanyahu or Herzog (or Tzipi Livni for that matter, Herzog's running mate), Hermann says it might be a matter of time, but depends on things changing in centrist Israel.

"It could happen in the future if these two parties (Yesh Atid and Kulanu) appear in a future election stronger and more consolidated, yet the they need to solidify and create this bloc mentality among Israelis."