Behind the Headlines the Search for a Political Center in Israel

With the political community in Israel abuzz with speculation regarding the possibility of early elections a number of parties and individuals have been busy studying the prospect of forming a new “centrist bloc.”

Their ambitions are encouraged by the phenomenal success in 1977 of the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) which started from nothing and won 15 seats in the Knesset, an unprecedented feat in Israel’s notoriously conservative politics.

That success was achieved at the expense of the Labor Alignment, which last 19 of the 51 seats it held in the previous parliament. In the 1977 elections a serious segment of the Israeli electorate demonstrated its longing for a new political force to replace the veteran leaderships of the traditional parties.

THE DMC’S FAILURE

But, while the Democratic Movement made an impressive showing at the ballot boxes, it failed to fulfill its declared intention to become the balancing force in the Knesset. Menachem Begin succeeded in establishing a coalition cabinet (supported by 62 Knesset members of Likud, the National Religious Party and Agudat Israel) without recourse to the DMC. Thus, the new political force last its leverage and, when later it did join the coalition, it had to adapt itself to Begin’s conditions.

The DMC’s decision to join Begin’s Cabinet carried the seeds of the party’s destruction. An important section of the party could not accept the Begin government’s political and social views. The group that was concentrated around MK Amnon Rubinstein did not conceal its dissatisfaction with the government’s policy. The disgruntlement of this component finally resulted in a split. The Rubinstein group seceded from the coalition, thus dividing the party into two groups — one in the opposition and the other, headed by Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin, still part of the government, Subsequently, further defections took place in both factions.

Even though, in the final analysis, the Democratic Movement’s experience proved to be a total political failure, attempts to establish a similar centrist force in advance of the next elections are proceeding with vigor. The idea that lies beneath this new activity is that the Israeli voter is fed up with the veteran politicians who head both Likud and the Labor Alignment. Sample polls that are taken regularly show that some 30 percent of the voters are “don’t knows.”

VOTERS DISILLUSIONED, SUSPICIOUS

Disillusionment with Likud and suspicion of Labor — trends that are clearly shown through these polls — encourage the initiative to establish a new centrist party.

At the heart of the new efforts stands the original group that three years ago established the core of the Democratic Movement.

Rubinstein, a Leading constitutional lawyer, and his supporters, are trying again to create a political body responsive to the “middle of the rood” sector of the Israeli electorate. But Rubinstein carries with him the image of a political amateur who has failed once before. He is accused by some would-be sympathizers of failing to foresee the harmful impact on the credibility and inner stability of the Democratic Movement of the accretion to the party in 1977 of long-time political maverick Shmuel Tamir, now Minister of Justice, and of the nominating of Yadin, a world famous archaeologist, as its leader.

Rubinstein’s current maneuvers to reestablish a significant centrist force are viewed by many, therefore, with reservations. But Rubinstein is not the only politician who dreams about a new party; there are several other ambitious persons in the political arena who share the same dream.

According to popular speculation, frequently reported in the press, a centrist party could emerge composed of sections of Likud — the Liberal faction and ex-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman — the Independent Liberals, and one of the two segments of the Democratic Movement.

Whether or not this dream materializes, it seems clear that the shape of the Israeli political scene may undergo significant changes in advance of the next elections.

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