An Interview with Yohanan Plesner

Israelis first and foremost expect the government to restore growth to deal with the economic crisis, and perhaps to not only initiate immediate measures to deal with the crisis, but also to instigate necessary economy reforms and structural reforms that would put our economy on a long-term trajectory of growth. The two former deep economic crises that we had — one during the Second Intifada and the one before that during the hyperinflation of mid-'80s  —  were both utilized as a good opportunity for economic and structural reforms.

The last point is worth mentioning is that while the degree of divisiveness of our politics in many ways has never been higher, and the wedge between the center-left and the right-wing camp has been very pronounced, the actual policy or ideological differences are to some extent at an all-time low. The main divide focuses more on issues of identity than on actual policy preferences: on security or the economy it would be difficult to identify clear ideological differences.

OR: How and why have Israeli politics reached this realignment?

Plesner: This is probably the most difficult issue in Israeli public and political life. We can divide our policy areas into three main categories. The first would be defense and foreign affairs. Historically the political spectrum of right, center, and left, was defined around approaches to foreign policy and security issues. The more hardline you were, the more you wanted to hold on to "greater Israel," the more you were to the Right. The more dovish and prone to negotiation and to a two-state solution, the more you were on the Left. And then there was a broad middle.

What happened with foreign policy and security issues is that the two main dogmas that characterize this divide — the right-wing dogma of a greater Israel and the left-wing one of two states — both have been refuted by reality. The Left wing tried its agenda during Oslo, and then there was the Second Intifada. Ever since, a clear, broad majority of Israelis have basically very little faith that there would be another Palestinian leadership willing or able to make the necessary compromises in order to create a stable two-state solution. That led to a huge movement of, I would say, about a third of Israelis from the left-wing camp to the centrist camp on issues of security.

The right wing, on the other hand, and its idea that there's no Palestinian people and millions of Palestinians can be just disregarded and we can control all the territory, also died out again during the Second Intifada. So when you try to distill the question "What is the debate about?", it's very difficult.

The other issues in defense and foreign affairs area have to do with how to deal with various groups that have a declared policy of annihilating the Jewish state — whether it's Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran — and how to deal with the moderate Arab states. In all of those areas, there isn't much of an ideological debate. There are those who are somewhat more inclined to use force, and those who are less inclined. But generally speaking, on all of those debates on how to erode the Iranian presence and deal with the Iranian threat, it's more an argument around competence: whom do you trust? Generally, the defense establishment — which is very competent and institutionally strong — pretty much determines policy in those areas.

There’s a second axis: economic and socioeconomic issues, the main axis that defines the politics in most developed democracies. In our case, ideologically speaking we don't have on the one hand a libertarian approach and on the other we do not have serious approaches saying the state will resolve everything and the market is the problem. Mainstream politics center around the idea of open markets with solidarity, an open welfare state, a commitment of the state to the individual, to a broad public education and a broad public provision of health to all citizens while at the same time allowing for the business sector to grow and increase wealth. In other words, a small open economy that very much depends on exports. So again, while there are differences or nuances, they focus on questions of competence: whom do you trust to deal with the economy? It's not like if you voted Blue and White you had a very clear economic approach versus Likud. Likud and Blue and White voters might have the same outlook. It doesn't represent a deep-rooted ideological difference.

The final axis that has to do with identity and the related policy issues. This is I would say the axis that mostly defines our politics, and if you will, the tribal nature of our politics. It's about how you view Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. About which of the components you think is more important. About how to strike the balance between those normative components that define our state.

On the civic axis, probably the single most important parameter that defines where people situate themselves is level of religiosity. On one side of the spectrum you see ultra-Orthodox that regardless of issue demonstrate a very tribal voting pattern. The size of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ representation in the Knesset mainly reflects the demographic size of those communities and voter turnout. So here you have perhaps now 16 seats in our Parliament that have next to nothing to do with whatever the issues are on the table in a specific election campaign.

Then you have the national-religious, also in high numbers. Around 85 percent belong to the right-wing camp and either vote for Likud or for the sectorial parties of the national-religious group. They have a different view, both on matters of religion and state, on issues of conversion, marriage, and religious law versus civic law.

On the other end of the spectrum — before we get to the traditional versus secular Israelis — there's the Arab minority. Around 90 percent of the Arab minority voted for the Joint List that represented this group. Then, between Likud and Blue and White, generally speaking the more you are Blue and White, the more you are secular and living in central Israel. The more you are Likud, the more you are traditional and living more towards the periphery, whether the geographic or social periphery.