Neither Left nor Right but Backwards: The Failure of Centrist Parties in Israel and their Relationship to the Multiparty System

Kadima

Israel Affairs 15.1 (2009): 28-51, 1 January 2009 (online)

 

Students of Israeli politics will observe that, against the backdrop of perpetual siege, the complexity and intensity of fault lines undercutting the nation of six million have become axiomatic—Jew/Arab, Ashkenazi/ Sephardi-Mizrahi, religious/secular, left/right, hawk/dove, veteran/immigrant, Zionist/post-Zionist, etc. Yet, Israel has maintained a remarkable degree of stability. Even before Doron and Kook emphasized constitutional-institutional ‘stability-inducing mechanisms’, Akzin identified the role of political parties which, in the liberal democratic context, serve to balance diverse articulations of interest or ideological differences and serve as a safety valve for what he calls the ‘cooling-off of dogmatic fervor’. We may therefore define stability as the favourable disposition of the parties aggregate towards the preservation of the political system.

Often cited in this connection is the notion of a political-ideological centre as a moderating counterweight to left and right, especially within coalition governments, and the various perspectives have included: rational-choice/game-theoretical; structural-functional/morphological; definitional; statistical-analytic; equilibrial or relating to patterns of system equilibrium; and even historical class-analytic. Alongside such country-generic treatments of the centre in party systems literature, even the scholarship concerning Israel remains more system-synoptic than centre-specific. Although analytically rich, Hazan’s earlier efforts correlating centre parties to overall political stability covers European countries and not Israel ‘largely because no centre party or parties has been relevant enough to decide who would be in the governing coalition, or strong enough to influence the direction of competition’. Only with the recent, albeit short-lived, appearance of parties in the centre, have some researchers broached the subject directly.

On 28 March 2006, the Kadima party, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, won the majority in the Knesset elections so that, for the first time in Israel’s history, the two largest party-lists traditionally elected to the Knesset lost not only the majority but lost to a centrist party. Given the centre’s significance in coalition politics, why is a centrist party— assuming Kadima to be so—winning a parliamentary majority only now, and why have centrist parties not played a more dominant role in Israeli politics?

Given the epistemic and empirical gap, this article examines the root causes underlying the centre’s weakness in Israel—i.e., coalitional impotence and electoral ephemerality—and attempts to discern general patterns in terms of their relationship to the multiparty system. It reviews the literature on centre parties, much of it western European in style yet potentially cross-national in substance. With the theoretical-conceptual framework in place, the following three sections offer an analysis of the centre’s dysfunction—respectively: proximate circumstantial, remote structural-systemic, and intermediate party ideological and organizational factors—and attempt to relate the empirical evidence to seven specific propositions gleaned from various analytic perspectives. Just as a physician isolates the causes of a disease before finding a cure, so, in a polity as fissiparous as Israel’s, the causes for the centre’s longstanding weakness require rigorous diagnosis before conceptualizing measures that may temper centrifugal and ‘extremizing’ forces. An attempt has been made to balance breadth and depth of analysis, although the findings presented here are neither conclusive nor exhaustive, especially given Kadima’s ongoing term.

Photo: Gilad Kavalerchik

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