Less than two months before Israel’s national elections, four centrist parties are struggling to become the primary voice for the undefined “center” of Israel’s political map. As television personality Yair Lapid, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, retired general Shaul Mofaz, and Labor party leader Shelley Yacimovich struggle for votes, incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu remains the clear front-runner and the only one capable of cobbling together a governing coalition [at least 61 of 120 seats in parliament].
Israel’s parliamentary democracy means that voters choose a party, rather than a candidate, when selecting a government. The party with the largest number of seats is usually given the first chance to form a coalition. However, as happened in 2009, if the largest party is unable to do so, the baton passes to the next party.
Tzipi Livni today is richer than she was yesterday, as seven Knesset (parliament) members from Kadima announced they are joining her new party, which gives her access to $2.3 million in campaign funding. Former Labor party chairman Amram Mitzna will be the number two on the list.
Livni resigned from the Knesset several months ago, after she lost the leadership of the Kadima party to former Israeli army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz. Support for Kadima has plummeted from 28 seats in the current parliament (the largest single party), with polls predicting it will receive just a handful of mandates in the upcoming election.
Despite her decision to leave politics and then come back, Livni remains personally popular with many Israelis. Also popular is television-personality-turned-politician Yair Lapid, who seems set to win at least 10 seats in the next election, his first time out. Lastly, the center-left Labor party under Shelley Yacimovich, another former broadcaster, hopes to garner more seats than the 13 it won under Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has since broken away from the party, formed his own, and subsequently announced his retirement from politics when the current government ends.
“There is a center that you can tap into, but it’s very versatile and this center tends to be continuously disappointed,” Guy Ben Porat, a professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Media Line. “People vote for these parties and then see they’re all the same. These parties were able to have short-term successes, winning 10-12 seats, but if you look at what they did once elected, the answer is ‘nothing.’”
One of the new parties, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, insists it is different.
“We all live in this country, we work, pay taxes and serve in the army. But at the same time, we can’t afford to finish the month or own our own home,” Lapid says in a clip on his website. “So what do we want to happen here? Aren’t we stuck? Do you know why? Because old politics have done everything possible to make us forget that the power is in our hands.”
Dov Lipman, an American immigrant who is number 17 on the Yesh Atid list, says their party represents the true center.
“We’re not here to represent extreme ideologies on either side—we see the Likud taking a turn to the right and Labor to the left,” Lipman told The Media Line. “We have clear policies and plans to address the burning issues in Israeli society that represent the center ideology.”
Lipman also rejects criticism that Lapid has no experience in government or foreign policy.
“He [Lapid] has surrounded himself with experts in leading fields including prominent mayors,” Lipman said. “In 11 months, he has opened 100 branches with 15,000 volunteers.”
Lipman said the party’s Knesset list, due to be announced Sunday night, includes Rabbi Shai Piron, a prominent religious Zionist rabbi; Yael German, the mayor of Herzylia, a Tel Aviv suburb; Meir Cohen, the former mayor of Dimona, a economically-challenged town primarily known as the home of Israel’s nuclear reactor; and Yakov Peri, the former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service.
Lapid is focused almost exclusively on economic issues, while Livni has staked out the center in foreign policy. Labor, which announced its Knesset list this weekend, is being seen as dovish on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
This crowding in the center has yet to influence Israeli public opinion. The joint list of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, which is headed by hardliner Avigdor Lieberman, seems set to form the next government. Israeli analysts say the populace is becoming more hard-line.
“The country has moved to the right. It’s partly a matter of demographics – young people tend to be more right-wing, and religious families are getting larger,” Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of communication at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzlia, told The Media Line. “Many people have come to the conclusion that peace is impossible, and of course Israel always moves to the right after military conflicts,” he said referring to Israel’s latest round of conflict with Hamas that ended in a cease-fire last week.
There is one more wild card. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has yet to announce if he will be competing in the next election.
In 2009, 33 political parties threw their hats into the ring. But only 12 passed the electoral threshold of two percent to gain a seat. Netanyahu seems set to win the upcoming election. The only question remaining is who will be part of his coalition and who will remain in the opposition.