Where’s the Center & Who’s Israeli & What Comes Next? (Israel Elections, 2013)


I’m not sure what just happened in the Israeli elections except that the right-right wing got clipped on the chin by centrist Yair Lapid, a handsome man who seems to have captured the center of Israeli politics. Which means what? Writing in Haaretz, Yossi Verter called Lapid’s victory the victory of  modern politics, network politics, the politics of reality television.  Following the incoming election returns, I was immediately very excited; now much less so, having been pushed hard by friends further to my left, and now reading the news with more open eyes. On day one, we already learn that Lapid is not much of a poker player, having already announced that he is going to try to join a new government led by Netanyahu. And with whom is he going to sit and under what conditions? What has happened is what happens next, which is still unclear. In the meantime, I’ve been mulling this, and I think I’m beginning to understand that whatever it was that happened has everything to do with “the center,” with the center of the country along the coastal plain, with the media and with high-tech, and with an image, or a group of images that are meant to shape what it means to be “Israeli” in a new century.

More to the point, I heard Lapid on NPR this morning, addressing a crowd last night in Hebrew about democracy, citizenship, resuming negotiations with the PA, and refusing the politics of fear and hatred. These were very compelling, very beautiful words, and they sounded just right. Then, later this morning in Haaretz, we read him say, mentioning her by name, that he won’t join Haneen Zoabi of the Israeli-Palestinian Balad Party to block Netanyahu from forming the next government. But he’s willing to sit with rightwing fanatic Naftali Bennett if not because they are both young yuppies from the center of the country, because they are both “Israeli,” as opposed to Zoabi, who’s not an Israeli citizen just because she’s Palestinian? There was no reason to mention her by name unless it served a purpose, a bit of race-baiting on his part would seem, in its very gratuitousness, to re-confirm the politics of fear and hatred against which Lapid said he ran.

This actually conform to the pattern identified, astutely, by Michael Koplow as essential to Lapid’s appeal. Writing in Open Zion, Koplow claims that “Lapid ended up winning so many seats above and beyond what was expected because he was able to successfully look at Israeli society and turn his party into a facsimile of its desires without being controversial. He had an extensive grassroots operation, was highly organized, and knew exactly which positions were most popular to espouse. Reform the draft? Check. More investment in education? Check. Pick non-controversial fights that can easily be won? Check. Acknowledge that a two-state solution is necessary while espousing the belief that there is no Palestinian partner for peace? Check…. Lapid was able to be whatever anyone wanted him to be, and so when the unusually large number of undecided voters was looking for a place to go, Yesh Atid was the natural choice as the party representing the typical Israeli.”  This has to be better than Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Bennett, but who knows by how much and to what if any effect.

It has been a long time since Israeli politics has been so aesthetic, and so virtual. Because maybe in the end, it all came down to an image, and you cannot be more Israeli than Yair Lapid, nobody is more Israeli than Yair Lapid, especially if you have a last name like Zoabi, or, for that matter, Lieberman or Yacimovich. I’m not prepared to say that nothing happened, that the right-right wing did not take a hit. A lot of my friends will disagree, but I think this amorphous, vacuous center is a far cry better than the vicious, racist, anti-democratic, right-right wing. It’s all too early to tell what it all might end up meaning, for peace, for civil rights, and social justice, so I’m not ready to say one thing or the other except that this government may not be the-most-rightwing-government-in-the-history-of-the-country. So maybe something good might come out of this the mutable center-right center, maybe a new social contract, reordering the relations between religion and a secular state and protecting the middle class; or maybe the end result will be just “x” more years of class division, ethnic sectarianism, racial separation, entrenched occupation, and creeping apartheid?

As for the relation between Lapid and the radical rightwinger  Naftali Bennett, they are two sides of the same coin. What I think is common to Lapid and Bennett is that they are successful, wealthy middle aged men. The one made his fame as a media darling, the other a modest fortune in high-tech. Both want to project their brand on the country. But in the cultivation of a self-regarding national self- image I wonder if they see the world outside “Israel,” the bubble they would otherwise inhabit, serenely. Are they aware of Israel’s growing isolation in the West, and even more urgently, the need somehow to figure out how to come to terms with their neighbors, and to integrate the country into a new and dangerous because volatile Middle East? Writing in the Guardian, Aluff Benn asks about “the key question in the wake of Tuesday’s result: can you really live in Tel Aviv and feel like it’s Berlin, with no occupation and settlements barely 20 minutes away? Can Israel isolate itself behind wire and concrete and fix its education and welfare, as if the Palestinians don’t exist? It sounds good in a campaign, but disconnected from real life. And therefore Lapid’s test will be in his ability to pull Netanyahu towards a moderate foreign policy, and not to accept empty pledges of constitutional and social reform in return for sustaining Likud.”

I liked this line from the New York Times. “A lot of people are voting the way you invest in an Internet start-up,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based political consultant. “The C.E.O.’s have no experience, don’t always have a business plan, but people say, ‘What the hell, this is going to be the new Google, the new Facebook.’ Some of those start-ups make it, some don’t — it’s more of a gut feeling than looking at something and saying this makes sense.”  Perhaps this remark captures the new Israeli zeitgeist, the problem being that start-up ventures are not what anyone should think is a good model upon which to design political practice. It one thing with a start-up or even an entire industry, but it’s on a completely different scale when an entire country goes bust. There are a lot of fresh faces out there on the scene now, in the Likud and Labor Parties, the Jewish Home Party, and, of course, Yesh Atid. This too is technological, the almost wholesale technological de-skilling of the Israeli political class.

I have no doubt that these empty significations will have real effects, one way or the other. I just don’t know what they will be. Let’s see what happens. In the meantime, it was fun watching Netanyahu, Lieberman, Bennett, and Lapid cannibalizing the center right and far right vote between themselves. Out of this fracturing and potential for more fracturing on  the right, and perhaps a little push from the Obama administration here, maybe something good might come.

Volatile. Usually, one tends to think that ideological extremes are the volatile agents that polarize a society or political culture, and in the 20th c. there is a history of the far right and the far left cannibalizing itself into pieces. But here in Israel today, it would seem that the far left and the far right in Israel are pretty stable. One knows what they mean when they say what they say. All the volatility is coming out of the center. The news today is that Lapid is demanding as a condition for entering the coalition the drafting of ultra-orthodox kids and resuming peace talks with the Palestinians.What are these signals going to mean? Stepping back, the only thing about which one can be clear has to do with this extreme volatization of the Israeli political system. The country, already in flux, has been put into more flux, with no apparent end in sight.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to Where’s the Center & Who’s Israeli & What Comes Next? (Israel Elections, 2013)

  1. Shai Secunda says:

    Nice post! Just one point where I think you may have gone astray. Haneen Zoabi is a problem for Lapid not (only) because she is an Arab, but specifically because she is essentially opposed to the State. There’s a reason that Lapid singled her out and not any of the other Arabs in the Knesset. Her role in the Marmira is seared in the minds of Israelis. Basically, Since Lapid is all about “What is Israeli to you” – and Zoabi is opposed to “ISareli” she’s is a non-starter.
    But that’s not to say he’s a great lover of Arabs. Like the vast majority of (upper) middle class Middle Israelis, he cannot stand them. Still, he is far less outwardly racist than the right-rights

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Shai. I understand about Zoabi. It’s not even that she’s anti-Israel-being-a-Jewish-State. All the Palestinian-Israeli politicians are anti-Zionist. It’s that she’s a woman and an “Arab” and she’s got a big mouth! Re: the big mouth, she’s everything that Yacimovich promised to be! (Also: Tibi also gets singled out –and spat at). And yes, I agree with you that he’s less racist than the right-rights, outwardly and inwardly, which is why, maybe, he thought he had to prove himself, that no, he’s not going to cooperate with “Arabs.”

  2. Shai Secunda says:

    Still disagree. Almost all the Arab MK’s may be varying degrees of anti-Zionist. But Zoabi, in the middle Israeli perception, really is something else. Yes, the right-rights spit and throw water on Tibi, but Zoabi is far far more despised by everyone. Did you read the recent Haaretz profile of her?

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