Thursday, May 3, 2012

Beware 'the Radical Center'

by MK Tzipi Hotovely

Elections for the 19th Knesset will be remembered in the annals of Israel's history as an attempted takeover of Israeli society by "the radical center."

Israeli readers are certainly chuckling to themselves. After years of the media warning us about the radical Right, and reality cautioning us against calamities brought on by the radical Left, what do we have to fear from people who position themselves in the cozy and harmless mainstream?

Top strategic consultants are now sitting in the offices of party chairpeople. A single question occupies their thoughts: How can they capture the hearts, and votes, of the typical centrist voter?

A flood of centrist parties are fragmenting the center, from Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party, to the remnants of Kadima (which may itself undergo a further split) to Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Independence party, which is convinced that it embodies no less than Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's vision for Israel's future. This, by the way, is just a partial list of centrist parties, one that does not even take into account additional candidates who may found the next new promising center party.

We must marvel at Israeli politics' unconscious addiction to an illusive center. If we try to understand the main problem with this center, it is that its members aren't fighting for anything in particular, but rather running away from choosing a decisive path.

The center represents a flight from the need to tackle our society's fundamental questions. Bills like that proposed by Yair Lapid -- "We won't draft everyone, but we'll try to please both the ultra-Orthodox and those who serve in the army" -- are a good example.

Israeli society today does not need a center. It needs decision makers on a number of diplomatic, domestic and social issues: whether to attack Iran, whether to annex Judea and Samaria or to divide the land (the option to perpetuate the status quo will not persist over time), whether to break up Israel's economic concentration through forceful intervention, whether to restore the people's army to its original mission or allow the Israel Defense Forces to be the army of half of the people. Each of these decisions requires a clear path forward, not fence sitting.

Therefore, despite the desire of some of today's centrist parties to inherit the legacy of Mapai (the Zionist Socialist precursor to the Labor party), it is important to realize that Mapai was never centrist. Ben-Gurion knew how to make tough decisions. Under his leadership, Mapai was able to take the decision to establish a state against all odds, to embark on a nuclear project despite the risks, and to move the Knesset to Jerusalem as a historical statement of the eternity of Israel's capital.

Menachen Begin also knew how to make decisions. He made a peace agreement with Egypt, chose to attack Iraq's nuclear reactor and made an effort to reduce ethnic and social gaps in a country where the Belorussian Meir Feinstein and Iraqi Moshe Barzani both gave their lives to help establish the state. The two were imprisoned in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem awaiting execution, but committed suicide together by detonating grenades, rather than let the British hang them.

The collapse of Kadima and routing of Tzipi Livni were not the personal defeat of a particular politician. Rather, they represented the collapse of the approach that tried to take leave of ideology and making decisions.

The greatest danger to Israel today is not the messiahs from the Akirov Towers or Caesaria (where Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu own lavish homes), as former Israel Security Agency director Yuval Diskin shamelessly referred to them. Rather, the greatest danger is from the false messiahs of the center who promise a different kind of politics, even though no such thing exists. There is the politics of a clear path and leadership, of making tough decisions, and there is the politics of spin and public relations, leaving behind an empty shell when one's term in office is over.

There is a famous Talmudic story explaining how the Second Temple came to be destroyed and the Jewish people sent into exile. This is the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, who engaged in petty, baseless hatred. The story ends with an odd accusation against a lesser-known sage, Rabbi Zechariah Ben Avkalus, who avoided making a decision at a critical moment. Avkalus was trying to be a centrist, so as not to upset anyone. He wanted to stay on the good side of both Halachah (Rabbinic law) and the Romans. The unhappy, bitter end followed not long after.

Even then, the sages of Israel understood that centrism can lead to destruction.

MK Tzipi Hotovely is a Likud member of Knesset.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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