The country where the centre CAN hold

February 3, 2019

Published on ‘Medium’ site on February 3rd:

The emergence of Benny Gantz as Netanyahu’s main rival highlights the gulf between Israel and the (crumbling) democracies of the West


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

That line, from Yeats’ gloomy, fearful yet enigmatic 1919 poem has, in recent years, been among the most oft-quoted from the entire corpus of English-language poetry. And justifiably so, because it catches in a few sparse words the main themes of social and political distress that currently assail the rich and formerly stable countries of ‘the West’ — Western Europe, North America and those Pacific Rim nations that have succeeded in joining the elite grouping.

In one after another of these countries, things have fallen and/or are falling apart, — especially in the largest and hence most important Western countries: the US, UK and France. These ‘things’ include the key elements of the socio-economic fabric, namely law and order, steady jobs and employment, wages and pensions and, perhaps above all, the family.

The centre — the political centre, that is — has crumbled in country after country. In this sad process, the United Kingdom has, incredibly but undeniably, carved out for itself pride of place. The country that invented and developed parliament, constitutional government and the separation of powers; that was regarded as the paragon of stable government, thanks to a two-party system that enabled and practiced the orderly transfer of power; whose professional civil service was the exemplar of integrating change with continuity;  that ‘sceptered isle’ is now a septic sore, poisoned and seemingly bent on suicide.

Nor is the British example unique. On the contrary, the United States is locked into a spiral of self-imposed governmental paralysis and increasingly violent swings of the political pendulum; France seems to have left it too late to change course, even if it could agree on which new direction to adopt; Italy, even more than France, has decided that the la-la-land that it demands for itself is what Europe and the world must provide for it; and Germany, on which France, Italy and the rest of Europe unwillingly and uncomfortably lean, has apparently had enough.

In all of these countries, as well as in many smaller ones, deep-seated and long-festering social and economic problems, aggravated by prolonged policy blunders, have destroyed the political structure that held sway through the post-war era. The centre has not held as more extreme ideas, parties and policies have gathered strength. The 20th century division  of ‘right’ and ‘left’ has been rendered obsolete by forces which, despite being labelled ‘far-right’ and ‘far-left’, actually have far more in common in their opposition to the ‘Establishment’ that encompasses the old parties, than is implied by the misleading nomenclature still in common use.

Yet the rot is not universal. There is a country on a very different political trajectory. True, it is reviled by most Western intellectuals, especially in the ‘solid’ democracies of Western Europe, most of which have yet to celebrate a full century of freedom. A senior diplomatic representative of the highly-respected nation-state that gave the world ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ — not to mention the first, second, third, fourth and fifth republics, all in less than two centuries — not long ago called it “that shitty little country”.

But, while Paris burns and France tears itself apart, Israel — and especially the Israeli political system — is healthy and solid, reflecting the healthy growth of the society which it represents.

The evidence supporting this statement is plain for all to see — except for those so blinded by pre-conceived ideas as to be impervious to what is happening in front of their very eyes.

In Israel, the current election campaign is focused on the centre. The extremist wings (on both sides) are weakening and the centre is strengthening. For the umpteenth (probably tenth, but one loses count) time in the last 42 years and the third time this decade, the new and rising force in Israeli politics is a self-proclaimed centrist party.

This is not what the Israeli media reports. The liberals bewail the demise of the old centre-left and left-wing parties, while cheering the failures of the right. The (fewer) right-wing commentators do the exact opposite. Both ignore the remarkable, stubborn insistence of the Israeli electorate to keep demanding and supporting centrist candidates and parties. No matter how many times these fail to deliver on their promises, the public keeps coming back for more.

In Israel, the centre holds and only the centre holds power. Netanyahu has spent ten years in office dragging Likud towards the (political, socio-economic, security and foreign affairs) centre, so that it can retain power. Most of Likud’s leadership and rank and file think, and would like to act, more ‘right-wing’, as does Netanyahu himself — but they don’t,  because doing so would cause them to lose power and all the attendant goodies.

The latest threat to Likud comes, once again, from the centre. Lapid’s Yesh Atid tried and failed to wrest power from Likud in 2013.  Kahlon’s Kulanu, perhaps learning from Lapid’s experience, tried to share power with Likud in 2015 — and succeeded. Now another newcomer has entered the fray. Whilst Benny Gantz seems to be following much of Lapid’s copybook from 2013, he is also drawing from a much longer tradition of ex-generals seeking to win power by conquering the political center — a tradition that stretches back at least as far as Yigael Yadin’s ‘Party for Democratic Change’ in 1977.

When viewed in a current global context, or in the longer sweep of Israeli history, what is so striking about this general election is that the Israeli public, despite serial disappointments from serial contenders, keeps demanding the same thing — a strong, credible centrist leader. Extremists have no chance of winning an Israeli election.

Sadly, tragically, that is more than can be said for the leading democratic countries.  But for anyone who understands what makes Israel tick, the triumph of pragmatic centrism is not surprising.

For a country that faces enormous challenges in so many spheres, common sense — as well as long experience — says that only a pragmatic centrist government can deliver both external security and internal stability via prosperity. Not only can the centre hold, but it must — so it will.

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