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Centerís Great White Hope

Centerís Great White Hope

Associate Editor

The likely victor in next weekís Knesset election, no matter the final numbers, is the Israeli political party Kadima, which recognized that an exhausted people wanted something other than ideology in a country where ideology has hung like smog.

Kadima, with its fusion of Labor and Likud veterans, and its dismissal of the dreams of Israelís ancient borders and that negotiations are possible with a people that could dance on the rooftops on 9-11 and vote for a Hamas, spoke to an Israeli electorate that in its international loneliness wanted nothing so much as to stop fighting among themselves, or at least with those who donít insist on living in the badlands of the West Bank.

No, the exact ideology, or how the coming years will work themselves out, doesnít really matter. Kadima is offering Israel its own version of Sir Lewis Namierís doctrine: ìWhat matters most about political ideas is the underlying emotions, the music to which ideas are a mere libretto, often of very inferior quality.î

Centrism ó it sounds right.Kadima offered music in a political culture that was cacophonous to the point of incompetence. Crime is way up; economic security for vast swaths of the population is way down. A war is over, with more than 1,000 dead, 5,000 wounded and an IDF in retreat, strategic or otherwise, from both Gaza and biblical dreams in Judea and Samaria.Perhaps no political casualty was greater than the warís evisceration of party platforms that were first formulated in pre-state Zionist congresses. If one war is over, a new war is on the horizon, with weapons both high-tech and low; Iranís budding nuclear bomb and the Palestiniansí daily rain of cheap but deadly rockets on cities reachable from Gaza launch pads.Itís not that Kadimaís roster isnít full of those who in some way were responsible for Israelís many failures in the first place, but at least these politicians had the decency to change their political name and address, let alone the tune they were fiddling.Israel wanted the music of the new, or maybe something as old as antiquity. Two millennia ago, the last time the Jewish people had sovereignty in Israel prior to 1948, the people were led by a senate of gentleman called the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, from which the modern Knesset took both its name and size, 120 members. Among them were prophets such as Ezra, and men like Mordechai of the Purim story.Long after, they were immortalized in the Talmudís Ethics of the Fathers for maintaining the best of Jewish tradition, probably the last time any group of legislators, let alone a Knesset, found itself in a discussion of ìethicsî without needing a lawyer.

They handled the thorniest of debates ó establishing the canon of the Bible and the reformersí substitution of the siddurís poetry in lieu of animal sacrifice, and yet all the while personified what Maimonides, like Aristotle, hailed as ìthe Golden Mean,î a fusion of passions that avoided the hostility common to the fringe. It was the last time centrists controlled the Knesset.Like worn and stressed lovers returning to a favorite song or scene of early romance in the hopes of rekindling what was best, the modern adoption of that Knessetís name and size spoke to a yearning for Maimonidesí old ideal of an e pluribus unum all our own.Itís not that modern Israel never had a centrist party before Kadima. It just never had one that didnít have its wheels come off within an election or two.The centrist General Zionists Party peaked as Israelís second-largest party with 20 Knesset seats in 1951 before drifting into oblivion with descending totals in subsequent elections.Yigal Yadinís centrist Democratic Movement for Change, or Dash, emerged with 15 seats in the 1977 elections, the best showing for a maiden slate in any Knesset vote. A fusion of socialists and businessmen, hawks and doves, Dash was dedicated to constitutionally reducing the influence of fringe parties and disengaging the government from the policing of religion. Dash vanished before the next election.

Yet another new party, The Third Way, finished ninth in the 1996 elections, with just four seats. Three years later the generically named Center Party, with some prominent Likud and Labor veterans, emerged from the gate with a dull thud, finishing seventh with just six seats.

But if Israel never cared for its centrist parties, it was never infatuated with the various incarnations of Labor or Likud either, which is why ambitious Israeli politicians always kept thinking that a centrist Great White Hope could have a puncherís chance against the Labor and Likud heavyweights. After all, not once in Israelís 58 years has the Knessetís largest party ever won a majority. Thatís now a given, but the extent of the dissatisfaction with the winning parties is too often unexamined.

Even in the í50s, when Labor totally dominated Israeli politics, when founding father David Ben-Gurion, the most powerful politician Israel ever had, topped the ticket, Labor still never did better than 47 seats, meaning that at Ben-Gurionís peak there were 73 Knesset members, the vast majority, who were disgruntled in various degrees.In 1969, in the first election after Israelís ìmiracleî victory in the Six-Day War, when Israel was at its height of self-confidence, military security and international acclaim, the incumbent Labor Party (known in that election as the Alignment) still couldnít win over a majority of Israeli voters, falling short at 57 seats.

If thereís ever been evidence that Israel is remarkably ripe for a new centrist party it is this: Rather than becoming more politically stable as the country grows older, Israel has become more unstable. Israelís prime ministers havenít had what we in the United States would consider analogous to a successful two-term, eight-year presidency since Ben-Gurion, who, after serving more than 13 years sandwiched around a brief retirement, stepped down in í63.

In the 43 years since then, there have been 10 prime ministers (including Ehud Olmert and three who served twice), with only Menachem Begin holding office for as long as six consecutive years. Israel went through five prime ministers in the í90s alone. Not since the 11th Knesset, elected in 1984, has a Knesset gone the full four years without early elections.In the years since Oslo, Labor and Likud have both been in free fall. No Knesset election since 1948 saw such poor showings by the winning party as what weíve seen in the last decade ó Labor, 34 seats in 1996; Labor, 26 in 1999; Likud, 38 in 2003. Both Labor and Likud had become as fringe as a winning party can be.No matter how many seats Kadima wins, the kings are dead. For the first time in modern Israeli history, the center is ascendant. n

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