How will they do this time around? Left to right: Moshe ‘Bogie’ Ya’alon, Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid greet Blue and White supporters on April 9, the night of Israel’s last election. (Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Centrist Confusion behind ‘Blue and White’

Despite the emphasis on its place in Israeli politics, the alliance’s campaign tactics can leave voters bewildered

The opposition Blue and White alliance, Israel’s biggest self-described centrist party co-led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, hopes to rectify the mistakes it made in its first electoral campaign for April’s national election – namely a lack of clarity in its platform and in the public’s perception of its political identity.

Blue and White, an amalgamation of Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There’s a Future”) party, Gantz’s Hosen L’Israel (“Israel Resilience”) party and Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon’s Telem (“National State Movement”) party, was founded in February, ahead of the April 9 elections. Its leadership is rounded out by Gabi Ashkenazi, allowing the alliance to boast of three former IDF chiefs of staff, with Lapid being the odd man out.

The alliance and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud both received 35 mandates in the April election, but President Reuven Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with forming a governing coalition, as more legislators said they supported serving under him. Following weeks of failed coalition talks, however, the incumbent called for new elections. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, agreed, and a new vote was set for September 17.

Leading up to the April election, polls and the Israeli media consistently placed Blue and White among what would be a “left-wing bloc.” However, at a recent event for English-speakers in Tel Aviv, Boaz Toporovsky, who occupies the 30th slot on the Blue and White candidate list, emphasized to The Media Line that this was definitely not where the party was on the political spectrum.

“We are center,” he asserted. “If we win, we are not going to form a coalition based on a [cooperating] party’s political affiliation, but on their principles,” he stated.

But what is Israeli “centrism”?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Dr. Alon Yakter, a lecturer in political science at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.

What’s the Main Issue?

The political spectrum in Israel has typically been defined as being based on security policy, which is to say views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The political Left, known as “dovish,” believes in a two-state solution achieved through diplomacy. The political Right, described as “hawkish,” often prefers military solutions and is more skeptical of Palestinian intentions.

According to Yakter, Israel’s political Center criticizes what it regards as the Left’s naiveté regarding the Palestinians and security, like the Right does, but warns against aggressive settlement policies, like the Left does.

His research has found that support for centrism grew as more voters developed “dissonant” views on the conflict that no longer fit the Left-Right dichotomy. He said centrist parties tend to attract the support of this “dissonant” voter base by employing vague language.

“They accommodate this dissonance without confronting it,” he said. “Centrism today doesn’t have a clear plan. It mostly criticizes the weaknesses of each [of the other camps].”

Therefore, he agrees with Toporovsky and feels that Blue and White is centrist.

“Not because they offer a concrete middle-of-the-road vision – they don’t – but because they patch together elements from both the Left and the Right, often vaguely and even incoherently, and criticize both camps,” he said.

This, he added, was exemplified by one of Gantz’s first public speeches as a candidate. The ex-military chief said he aspired to reach peace and end the conflict with the Palestinians, but days later he aired an ad boasting of devastation inflicted by the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip under his leadership.

While he concurs with Yakter in that Blue and White is indeed centrist, Prof. Avi Bareli, a researcher at the Ben-Gurion Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel, told The Media Line that it leaned more to the left, and that any rhetoric seeking to prove different was a facade.

“They say they’re ‘stronger on Gaza’ because Netanyahu is reluctant to enter a violent conflict with Gaza. But they were his… IDF chiefs of staff,” Bareli said, referring to Gantz and Ashkenazi. “People know they share his reluctance to engage [in a war]. People are calling their bluff.”

A National Ethos

Aside from the Palestinian issue, the real separation between the Likud and Blue and White, according to Gideon Rahat, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is their visions of democracy.

“Blue and White supports a more liberal democracy; the Likud supports a more populist democracy,” he told The Media Line.

Given this, the “natural allies” of Blue and White are the left-wing parties, Rahat said, although he added that the variety of ideologies among the party’s leaders made it “Center or Center-Right,” which had it appealing to the “soft Right,” as he called it.

“Gantz’s and Lapid’s parties are clearly centrist, and with them is Ya’alon’s party, a right-wing party,” he told The Media Line.

Bareli disagrees.

“They are Center-Left but portray themselves as just Center to move voters from the Likud,” he argued.

Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at the London-based Regent’s University, says that disdain for Netanyahu is the glue that united leaders from various political perspectives.

“What brought them together is [their desire] to get into power and depose Netanyahu,” he said.

Bibi-centric

Blue and White’s campaign has been described by the hashtag #NotBibi, a reference to the prime minister’s nickname, and its members have consistently said they would not join a coalition with him (although they are open to a Likud without Netanyahu).

However, experts say that what brought them together – a campaign emphasizing a will to remove Netanyahu from power – is likely to be their downfall, given it paints them as left-wing in a largely right-wing country.

Eyal Arad, one of Israel’s leading political strategists and a former adviser to Netanyahu as well as former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and the late Ariel Sharon, explained to The Media Line how Israel’s political binary politics shifted for April’s election.

“In Israel, if you support the prime minister, you’re considered right-wing no matter what your ideology is. If you oppose the prime minister, you’re considered left-wing, no matter what your ideology is,” Arad said.

Indeed, this perception is reinforced by none other than Netanyahu himself, as he discovered that his base was strongly mobilized by statements about the threat of the Left, and therefore he painted every political threat as leftist – including Blue and White.

Moreover, calling someone a “leftist” in Israel has shifted from being a mere political label to a derogatory term, Mekelberg says.

“[The Hebrew word] ‘smolan’ literally means ‘leftist,’ but now also means traitor or disloyal. It is a coded way of smearing the name of other people,” he said.

Ben-Gurion University’s Bareli said that this smear campaign has two purposes: to prevent Likud supporters from moving to Blue and White, and to foster a consciousness that the Likud is the leader of the Center-Right camp.

“This caused Blue and White to fail in their mission: ‘stealing’ Likud voters,” he said.

Media Manipulation

Despite there being some dozen parties with various political viewpoints on a range of issues, the Israeli media employ a two-bloc framework to paint the landscape, causing a centrist party like Blue and White to be bundled together with left-wing parties like Labor and Meretz, and with the country’s so-called Arab parties. This, despite statements from Blue and White that it would never join a coalition with the Arab parties and that it considered a Bibi-less Likud a viable partner.

Bareli calls the media manipulative rather than objective.

“It is highly partisan, like in the United States,” he said. “[The liberal daily] Haaretz will portray the Likud as right-wing, and [the conservative daily] Israel Hayom will portray Blue and White as left-wing – even though the truth is that they are the two major centrist parties,” he asserted.

Tel Aviv University’s Yakter said the media had “bought” into Netanyahu’s message regarding Blue and White’s political affiliation.

“Journalists tend to prefer frames that emphasize personal animosities and horseraces over policy nuances that would not create two neat blocs as easily,” he stated.

Second Time the Charm?

In a previous interview with The Media Line ahead of the April 9 elections, Arad said the real battle was about “who’s reacting to whom, emphasizing that “the guy who sets the agenda is usually the guy who wins.”

Regent’s University’s Mekelberg concurs.

“If they want to show they have something else to offer, they have to stick to a platform [that is an] alternative to Netanyahu,” he said.

Indeed, MK Miki Haimovich, number 7 on Blue and White’s candidate list, told The Media Line: “We were reacting to issues rather than talking about positive party messages.”

Arad agrees and discussed what the party needs to do this time around to have a shot at victory.

“They claim they are the party for change, but the only thing they offered to change was the prime minister. ‘If you don’t want Netanyahu, vote for Blue and White.’ But if you vote for Blue and White, what will happen?” he said.

“It is not about a slogan or advertisement or political move,” Arad insisted. “It is about basic marketing. Why would I buy your product? It’s not any better than the product I hold. Give me a reason to switch, which they haven’t done… yet.”

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