But that general continuity masks an ongoing and important trend: the shift from a predominant left-right political spectrum to a right-center spectrum at the expense of the Jewish political left. Claims that the left is continuing to do well and might still pose a check on the political right are inaccurate. This election has highlighted the opposite process – the weakening of the left.
Israel’s political parties are generally divided into four camps: the right-wing parties (primarily free-market capitalists and hawks), the left-wing parties (socialists and doves), the religious parties (including haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, and religious Zionists) and the Arab parties (including the Communist Hadash, which claims to represent both Jews and Arabs but for all intents and purposes shares ideological and political goals similar to the two other Arab lists).
But there is a fifth category, which is more abstract and amorphous. It is comprised of “third” or centrist parties. These parties claim to sit somewhere between the right and the left. They often hold policy positions closer to the left-wing parties on economic issues but share the right’s foreign policy view of a hostile world and mistrust the Palestinians. A final Israel-Palestine peace deal, for them, is desirable but unlikely at this time and so there’s no need to make much of an effort in the peace process.
This camp has produced a party, sometimes two, in most elections. Since 1965, though, such parties have almost always had the strength to shift the balance of power from right to left or vice versa. Yet virtually all of them disappeared after a single election. Until now Kadima was the exception: In 2006 and 2009 it won 29 and 28 mandates, respectively. It vanished completely in 2015.
Kadima was not a centrist party in the truest meaning of the term, since it was formed in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a vehicle for governing and to carry out a partial withdrawal from the West Bank. But as an alternate option to Labor or Likud, Kadima managed to buck the trend of disappearing third parties because of the emergence of a category of voters we can also call centrist. These voters – about 25 to 35 percent of Israel’s voting population – have demonstrated their staying power and interest in nudging the political system toward a broader consensus on social-economic and security issues.
In 2015 these centrist voters put Yesh Atid in that exclusive club of third parties that last more than one election. In 2013, the party won 19 seats, making it the second largest ticket. In 2015 it took 11 seats. This is obviously a loss for the party. But for the center, it was part of a gain. A second centrist party, Koolanu, emerged during this campaign and ended up with 10 seats – for a combined centrist total of 21 Knesset mandates. Moreover, these increases for the center come at the expense of the big left-wing (Labor) and right-wing (Likud) parties.
From 1948 to 1977 Israel’s political system was classified as a “dominant party system,” in which Mapai, Labor’s predecessor, always won a plurality of votes and always served as the senior partner in government. From 1977 to 1992, it was a more competitive system, but Likud presided over it continuously. From 1992 to 2006, the level of competition intensified, as Labor and Likud replaced one another in government in rapid and consecutive terms. In 2006 Kadima won, leading to a government for the first time not led by Labor or Likud. This heralded a new era, in which the center became increasingly prominent. Though Likud has been the senior partner in government since 2009, the centrist parties have been playing a bigger role in politics. In 2013, Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid was called the “kingmaker” because he could make or break coalitions; this year, Koolanu’s Moshe Kahlon has been given that moniker. The 2015 election demonstrated that the center parties are here to stay.
This development has been possible only because of a decline in the viability of the Jewish political left. The end of the Mapai/Labor era in 1977 clearly led to the end of the left’s hegemony. But by the 2000s, the left’s appeal as a practical alternative to the right had diminished, too. In the 2003 and 2006 elections Labor won 19 seats, as part of a broader ticket including a dovish ultra-Orthodox party. In 2009 it fell to 13 seats, and in 2013 rose a little to 15.
In 2015 Labor appeared to win 24 seats. But that was part of an electoral alliance with Hatnua, a center party formed exclusively to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. In 2013 the two parties together had 21 seats, which means they took three more seats as an alliance. It is not clear, though, how many were votes for Labor and how many were for Hatnua, or whether voters distinguished between them.
At the same time, Labor’s policy positions have brought it closer to the center on both socio-economic and security issues. In the past two elections Labor claimed it would reverse years of privatization by paying closer attention to the middle and working classes and providing more government effort to reduce the high cost of living and the growing gap between wealthy and poor. Yet, it certainly did not seek to return to its socialist roots.
On security, neither Shelly Yacimovich, who led Labor during the 2013 campaign, nor Isaac Herzog, current party leader, distinguished the party’s positions from Likud and the right. Yacimovich avoided talking about the peace process, settlements and Jerusalem at all – issues that previous Labor leaders had focused on. Herzog did mention the peace process, but he did not set out a plan for getting through it and for ending the conflict. Compare both to former Labor leaders Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1992 promised a deal with the Palestinians within nine months of the election, and Ehud Barak, who twice (Camp David and Taba) offered the Palestinians major Israeli concessions, including the division of Jerusalem.
Yacimovich avoided talking about other security issues, as well. Herzog did at times call out Netanyahu for enhancing the Iranian threat by disrupting relations with Israel’s main ally, the United States. But he qualified it by agreeing with Netanyahu that Iran was a threat and needed to be dealt with. While most Israelis, including the security establishment, agree with that position, it meant Herzog offered no practical reason for voters to think he would do anything different from Netanyahu.
In other words, Labor in the last two elections has stayed well within the Israeli consensus on economic and security issues, without providing a coherent, sustained, appealing message different from that of Likud. To be fair, it is not entirely Labor’s fault. The Jewish Israeli public, still traumatized from the violence and insecurity of the Second Intifada, continues to hold the left largely to blame for ongoing terrorism and doesn’t trust it on security issues. But as Labor has adjusted to public opinion, it has forsaken those positions held to by Rabin and Barak that provided an alternative to the right.
Finally, the main Jewish leftist party, Meretz, has continued to struggle, winning six or less seats since the 2000s (compared to 10 in 1999, nine in 1996, and 12 in 1992). While Meretz has remained true to its socialist origins and represents the main dovish position in Israeli politics, some voters have abandoned it for the centrist parties primarily because they distrust the left on security.
Other voters appear to have deserted the left for the Joint List, an electoral alliance of three Arab parties. These parties today promote nationalist – that is, Palestinian – rhetoric and ideas, such as calling for a “state for all its citizens,” that are at odds with the Zionist impulse of the Jewish parties. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that in 2015 many Jewish leftists voted for the ticket. In addition to the Arab parties’ increasing radicalism – some factions in the Joint List refused to sign a surplus vote agreement with Meretz because it is a Zionist party – there is a lingering sense that the non-Zionist Arab parties might delegitimize a Jewish-Zionist coalition, making Labor skittish about working too closely with them.
Indeed, Labor has not paid much attention to the Arab community since Rabin’s government (1992-1995), nor has it addressed the expanding social tensions between Jews and Arabs in the country. Meretz has, but it has been constrained by its size and its inability to influence governmental policymaking. This, too, makes it harder for the left to claim any major differences with the right.
Any effort to reinvigorate the Jewish political left will, then, necessarily involve a major effort to reach out to voters (particularly those who don’t think of the left as credible, such as Russians and Mizrachim), to forge common goals with the Arab community, to rebuild a grass-roots organization and time – lots and lots of time.
Brent E. Sasley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He tweets at @besasley.