The National Unity Government of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and Shaul Mofaz's Kadima has ended as abruptly, if not as surprisingly, as it began.
Early last May, Netanyahu and Mofaz, leader of Kadima just since late March, stunned the public, the politicians and the commentariat by announcing a unity government (this, after Mofaz had several months earlier denounced Bibi as an out-and-out liar, and while Bibi had devoted much time and energy earlier in his tenure to enticing members of Kadima to bolt). While some hopeful observers thought their move aimed to breathe new life into the moribund peace process (can somebody come up with a better name for that already, please?) it was much more prosaic than that.
Bibi, faced with a growing Fascist-looking insurgency within Likud, and seeking some room to maneuver around his ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) coalition partners in the wake of the Supreme Court's invalidating their current exemptions from military service, decided to build himself a wall-to-wall coalition that would marginalize the extreme right and put the fear of the Lord into the Haredim. Mofaz for his part found here a reprieve from the near-certain oblivion to which he and his party were headed had the snap elections called by Bibi (for no reason that anyone could much fathom) proceeded as planned in September.
The near-certain evaporation then, and highly uncertain prospects now, of Kadima, the single largest party, representing a quarter of the electorate, is curious—and speaks to a key dimension of Israeli political life: the center has no home. The broad middle of the Israeli body politic, broadly patriotic, pragmatic, fundamentally in favor of peacemaking (with security) non-ideological, has nowhere to go. For decades now it has wandered from one candidate and party formation to another looking for a home. Israeli political history is a memory lane of vanished centrist parties: the Centre Party, Shinui (Change), Dash (Democratic Change), to name just a few. (The last one, Dash, will always have a place in my heart; the very first TV broadcast I saw when coming to Israel to study in 1978 was the press conference at which its founder, legendary general and archeologist Yigal Yadin, announced its disbanding.) One poll after another shows great public support for moderate centrist policies, yet centrist parties not only can't keep their footing here, they can scarcely survive. What's going on?
First, structurally, Israel's system of insanely proportional representation rewards smaller, tightly cohesive parties and those larger parties which also maintain a cohesive sociological base and ideological focus.
The once-great center grouping was Ben-Gurion's Mapai. Its base was provided not least by its having created many of the new state's institutions, enterprises and trade unions and its having enough Labor Zionist ideology to keep its edge. Once its state-building was done, immigrant populations began to find their political footing and the capture of the territories put the historic Land of Israel into play, its hegemony was wrested by Begin's Likud and ideological fervor dissipated left and right. Yet a great middle went on longing for Mapai's broadly Zionist national ethos, and over time it moved closer to the Left. Kadima was created by Ariel Sharon in 2005 when Likud wouldn't go along with his pullout from Gaza. It was yet another deeply cynical move of his, but he could pull it off because there was enough of a base to go with him, and he himself had started out in Mapai. Once Sharon went into eclipse, the idea of pragmatic moderation that Kadima promised won Ehud Olmert election in 2006, on an explicit program of territorial withdrawal.
But Kadima's politicians were compromised, in some cases corrupted, and generally exhausted by years in power; veterans of decades of endless maneuver within the contorted parameters of Israel's internal and external problems, they sound, much of the time, just tired of life. With no discernible ethnic identity or cultural passion they were no match for the parties to the right or left that showed some kind of spark.
And then last summer something happened. The social protests ignited the country like nothing in decades. A younger generation, middle class, Zionist, politically moderate, feeling deeply, profoundly squeezed, sensed its country was slipping away, and wanted it back. The joke here for years has been that a third of the country works, a third goes to the army, a third pays the taxes—and it's all the same third. In last summer's protests, that third began to coil the revolutionary energy of its frustrated expectations.
The question of Haredi military service, smoldering for decades, has moved to center stage now, not only because of the Supreme Court decision, but as the tangible fruit of last summer's protests. The Haredim are the most visible sign of the great middle's sense of burdened moderation; their growing demographic strength and social and political assertiveness pose real strategic challenges to Israel's self-definition in the not-too-distant future. And what's more training anger on them serves to deflect inquiry and outrage from growing income disparities across the board and the disproportionate share of Israel's economy held in just a few hands.
Bibi, in his characteristic "sort of" leadership style has in recent weeks tried to have it multiple ways, now Kadima has decided it's had enough, and Bibi is betting on the Haredim's staying power and abiding loyalty, and the likely electoral evaporation of the center. He knows the Haredim will never really leave him, and is confident that Kadima will sooner or later blow over, the political center fragment itself and resume its wandering.
Sadly, it's still a smart bet. It's hard to see Kadima survive the next elections. But this latest twist in its fortunes may be part of a larger story, the stirring of a new civic spirit and maybe even civil society. If it can move beyond confronting Haredim and craft a compelling societal agenda, it may even one day finally find a home.