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The Israeli Center Cannot Hold

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While anxiety over Avigdor Lieberman has thus far focused on his race-baiting statements and campaign, Lieberman's ascent suggests another worrisome trend endemic to Israeli politics. In every election since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, third parties diverted key fragments of the Israeli mainstream from the two largest parties, leading to coalition governments guaranteed to collapse before they could address Israel's most pressing concerns.

Very broadly speaking, the Oslo Peace Process gave Israelis two clear choices: the Labor Party favored a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, while Likud was skeptical of a two state solution. But Israelis have consistently failed to back either of these visions in sufficient numbers to form stable governments. Instead, third parties with very specific agendas have won disproportionate power, unsettling any mainstream consensus. Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is our home") inherits the mantle of Kadima, Shinui, and Shas in the previous three elections. Importantly, these parties' moments of power have been short-lived and ineffectual. Lead by figures whose cult of personality take the place of workable platforms, such parties' influence frays once charged with the responsibilities of government.

These parties mushroom by cobbling together unrecognized, unstable demographic pockets, whom they immediately betray by joining ideologically dissonant coalitions. Such governments accomplish little before leaving the stage, and delay progress on Israel's existential issues. None of these parties maintained their status for more than one term -- the lofty promises of their leaders (and fearful warnings from critics) never materialized. The present stalemates outlasted them all.

The destabilizing effects of this pattern cannot be underestimated. Worse yet, the nature of each third party's contraction or collapse set the stage for the cycle to continue. Lieberman appears to have mastered this game in all its absurdity.

Like Lieberman today, the religious Sephardi Shas party stoked the passions of an alienated ethnic bloc in 1999. They became the largest third party, necessitating their inclusion in Ehud Barak's coalition. Shas then torpedoed Barak's final status negotiations with the Palestinians, bolting from the government while Barak was at Camp David. Barak's government fell apart, and the peace process exploded in a wave of terror.

The Shinui party became the next "kingmaker" in 2003 thanks to an anti-religious backlash, marshaled by the demagoguery of party leader Tommy Lapid (whose secularist rhetoric Lieberman skillfully employs). Shinui, however, offered no ideas on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence. It entered into a coalition with its nemeses, the ultra-Orthodox parties. Shinui imploded, and Israel went to elections once more in 2006.

Israelis again spurned the traditional division between dovish and hawkish governments, increasingly voting for radical solutions - or radical deferral. Arik Sharon's Kadima party proposed to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue with a hybrid platform: unilateral withdrawal from most of the Palestinian territories. This premise led to the ultimate coalition of the unwilling: advocates for a two-state solution with opponents to negotiation with Palestinians. The myth that equated Sharon with Israel's military prowess suppressed concern over who would govern Palestine after the Israelis left. Sharon suffered a stroke, Hamas took over Gaza, and two military disasters later, Kadima's promise proved illusory.

Lieberman came to the 2009 election with every trick up his sleeve: the Shas of the Russians, the Lapid of the anti-religious, the Sharon of the nationalists. As with previous third parties this decade, Yisrael Beiteinu's share of the electorate decimated the two leading contenders. Ironically, this sent Lieberman into an enormous coalition with the once-dovish Labor and the still-ultra-Orthodox Shas.

A longstanding argument holds that the best way to support Israel is to criticize its policies when they prove unsuccessful or immoral. Avigdor Lieberman's wild ideas about Israeli-Arabs, democracy, and the use of force provide the international community and left-wing Zionists with a useful proof. But Lieberman may only be king for day. While his views are easily condemned, attention should also focus on the electoral system (and the electorate) that gave rise to Yisrael Beiteinu, and will choose its replacement.

These successive Israeli governments have brought widely disparate agendas to the diplomatic table, while counting on a high level of American cooperation. Unable to wrest achievements out of Israel's shifting political landscape, America may lower the priority afforded to this ally as it pursues its own goals in the Middle East and beyond. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman personifies an Israel that is not at home with itself, and will find it difficult to be welcomed abroad.