'Lapid should join existing party'
Photo: Tomeriko

Lapid making a mistake

Op-ed: New centrist party won’t bring change; Yair Lapid should join existing party

Yair Lapid's announcement this week that he is leaving Channel 2 and running in the next Knesset election is good news for the Israeli political scene. Our political system is in dire need of fresh faces and new ideas. Lapid's apparent decision to run at the head of a new party, however, will only serve to further entrench the current political reality in Israel.


If history is any indication, Lapid's party will probably impact one or two election cycles in the short run, but in the long term end up bolstering the exact forces in Israeli society that he purports to be running against. If he really wants to have a lasting influence on Israel's political scene he should instead consider joining forces with one of the existing parties.


There is no doubt that change is needed. Many Israelis are increasingly concerned that a shrinking percentage of the population is relied upon to defend the country by serving in the army, joining the workforce and bearing the responsibility to fill the state coffers with taxes. In addition, the ugly incidents of the past few months where extreme Haredi elements have attacked women and pushed to have them removed from the public sphere have caused real alarm amongst those of us who feel that the basic nature of the Jewish state is changing in front of our eyes.


Lapid's party will not be the first to claim to be the great white knight that will save Israeli society. Israel's political history is littered with centrist parties that rose quickly to prominence, only to disappear within a few short years. All of these parties share key characteristic that can probably be attributed to Lapid's nascent party as well. They all had grand plans for transforming the national agenda by espousing consensus views that appealed to large swaths of the Zionistic electorate.


In reality, all of these parties ended up merely prolonging the existing situation and strengthening the more fringe elements of Israeli society.


Grim history

In the mid-1970s the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash) was founded as a response to years of corruption and political cronyism in the ruling Mapai party. Made up of leading politicians, businessmen and academics, Dash exceeded expectations and garnered 15 seats in the 1977 elections making it the third largest party in the Knesset.


Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to ignore Dash and initially did not invite them into the coalition and formed a government instead with Ariel Sharon's Shlomtzion and the religious parties. Dash eventually ended up joining the coalition five months later. By 1978, infighting and political disagreements led the party to split into three factions and by the 1981 elections the party no longer existed.


The 1990s saw two more new parties vie for the elusive "Zionist center" of the Israeli electorate. Avigdor Kahalani initially broke away from Labor and formed the Third Way party to protest Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's willingness to negotiate with Syria about a possible withdrawal from the Golan Heights.


The Third Way won four seats in the 1996 elections and joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first government along with Shas and the other religious parties. By the 1999 elections, however, much of their voters came to realize that the Third Way had little influence in the Netanyahu government and the party ceased to exist.


Taking the place of the Third Way in the 1999 elections was the Center Party. Led by Amnon Lipkin Shahak, Yitzhak Mordecahai and Dan Meridor, they too set out to appeal to the mainstream Israeli consensus. The Center Party promoted a middle of the road platform on most electoral issues that appealed to traditional voters of both the Labor and Likud parties.


Though it initially faired very well in public opinion polls and even presented its own candidate for the premiership, the Center Party won only six seats in the elections. Prime Minister Ehud Barak included them in his wide coalition along with Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Religious Party and Yisrael B'Aliyah. The party slowly fell apart throughout the Knesset term and did not run again in the 2003 elections.


Centrist coalition needed

If Lapid is truly worried by the trends that we have seen recently emerging in Israeli society he will not establish his own party. While initial polls indicate that his party will make somewhat of an impact in the next elections, history has shown us that this will be a short-lived fad unlikely to last longer than the next Knesset term.


More importantly, instead of forging long-term change, a new party will only further factionalize the Knesset and entice the next prime minister to again convene a narrow coalition that amplifies the power of small extreme parties.

What is needed instead is for talented people, like Lapid, to strengthen the existing parties.


The only coalition that will be able to reach a new "grand bargain" in Israeli society and implement real long-term change is one that is based on Labor, Kadima, and the Likud. These main Zionistic frameworks are strong enough to include almost all elements of Israeli Zionistic society. It is hard to see real differences between them on questions of security and diplomacy, the balance between healthy capitalism and social welfare, and the rights and obligations that are to be expected of all Israelis.


If Lapid were to join any of these existing parties, it is likely that they would be significantly strengthened, allowing a more stable central block to take shape in the Knesset. This would much more accurately reflect the wishes of Israeli society than the reality that exists in our parliament today. The leader of such government could of course invite other parties to join in the coalition, but it would be done so only on the basis of the existing consensus that would already be put into place.


Lapid's decision to come off the sidelines and take an active role in our democracy should be applauded. It would be wonderful if other influential figures from all elements of our society would follow his example. Let us hope, however, that this positive decision is directed towards a path that will affect real and lasting change to the benefit of our society, and not just create another fad party that will vanish just as quickly as it appeared on our political horizon.


Elie Bennett is a public affairs specialist based in Jerusalem


פרסום ראשון: 01.12.12, 21:13
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