Democracy

The magical thinking of the enlightened center

The middle way offers no solution to the one issue that most threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state

Does the political center offer hope to Israel? Seemingly, what is good for enlightened people in enlightened countries should also be good for us. In a country riven with divisions and fundamental disputes, the way of the center appears to hold promise – to palliate, to balance, to bridge – as the thread of sanity could mend the rifts that have torn and frayed our social fabric.

The Israeli center has a substantial foundation to lean upon. The “middle way” has attended human thought for hundreds of years and has found expression in many cultures. Aristotle’s theory of the “Golden Mean,” that the “middle way” is preferable to the two extreme poles was adopted by Maimonides, Buddhist sages, and even Islamic centrist school “al-Wasaṭiyyah.”

A slight twist on George Bernard Shaw’s witty aphorism resonates: “If at age 20 you are not a communist, you have no heart. If at age 30 you are not a centrist, you have no brains.”

Indeed, what is more wise than pragmatic conduct that seeks to resolve disputes through compromise? A person who has parted with his or her youthful ideological trenches, learns to come to terms with human nature. He or she understands that complexity and contradiction are deeply rooted within us. Reaching a middle ground is preferable to ideological fanaticism and messianic intransigence. Without compromise, anarchy will supersede social order.

Accordingly, Israel’s political center strives to find the golden path that navigates between clashing positions and competing interests – between conservatism and liberalism, social responsibility and individual rights, universalism and national particularism, a halachic state and the separation of religion and state, free markets and concern for the disadvantaged.

It is not surprising that the enlightened temperament radiated by the center appeals to many Israeli voters. Among them are those who have been pushed rightward on the ideological spectrum by the war yet seek political refuge in the center, which they perceive as more sane and responsible than the extremes.

But Israel’s unique reality complicates life for the Israeli center. It lacks a clear response to Israel’s greatest challenge – the conflict with the Palestinians. For years, Israeli politics managed to sweep the Palestinian issue under the rug, but October 7 brought it back to the forefront of the national agenda. What is the Israeli center’s answer to the most defining question impacting every aspect of our lives?

Any effort to extract a clear answer is doomed to failure. On the critical questions of the two-state solution and Palestinian life under prolonged Israeli occupation, the center is focused on calculating its position on the midpoint of the spectrum between the truly ideological extremes. On the Palestinian issue, the center has no ideological map of its own; its positions are born only in reference to the ideologies of others.

Thus, the center’s conceptual shifts on the Palestinian issue derive from the strengthening or weakening of the entities to its right and left, its overarching goal is to remain in the middle. Though the ideological poles give the center its identity, centrists disparage the ideologues that flank it on both sides as messianic or delusional. But isn’t there a great measure of magical thinking in the “religion of the middle”? Is it not an alchemical delusion to believe that the correct position on the Palestinian issue must lie at the midpoint between right and left?

The center must clarify its answers to the fundamental questions of our existence here: How will Israel’s Jewish and democratic character be ensured without dividing the land? Is the endless subjugation of another people sustainable? Treading water in the sea of failed centrist slogans – conflict management and mitigation – does not diminish Palestinian hostility. It strengthens those who deny Israel’s existence and weakens those willing to compromise.

Procrastination and reluctance to take a stand do not pave the way to a future peace accord. They just buy precious time for the occupation to dig in, for the settlements to deepen, for the division of the land to become impossible, and will ultimately lead to the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Shimon Peres once joked that during a visit to France he was scheduled to meet with the leader of a newly established centrist party. Peres inquired about its ideological principles. His interlocutor, surprised by the question, pondered it at length and then stunned Peres with his absurd reply: “Our ideology is to represent the changes in the situation.”

The moment an Israeli centrist abandons this kind of evasion and clearly reveals his ideological choice – dividing the land or keeping it all  –  he loses his centrist identity and is absorbed into one of the poles. It follows that to be a centrist in Israel, one must maintain ideological ambiguity on the most important issue for Israel’s future – the conflict with the Palestinians. After October 7, the national price of this ambiguity is unbearable. It is the duty of centrists to forthrightly clarify their view on resolving the conflict, even if they shed their centrist label in doing so.

Published by TOI