Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Nearly simultaneous political earthquakes shook two separate countries – Israel and the United Kingdom – in the past few days. While facing situations unique to them, these countries were jolted by events with striking parallels between them. Together, these rumblings suggest that the era of political polarization may have finally peaked. After years of watching their countries divided, inflamed, frightened, and drifting angrily to the extremes, centrists in both nations may have finally had enough.
Small groups of daring politicians each fired a high-voltage shot across the establishment’s bow this week, in an effort to push for change and cut a path toward the political center after years of advances by hardliners and demagogues.
To be sure, these early sparks of centrism could get snuffed out as the establishment rolls forward. But some of the factors that fueled the rise of nationalist demagogues in recent years have receded. Nothing was more helpful to fear-mongering politicians than the sight of masked ISIS terrorists with their glinting knives at the throats of their hostages, or the scenes of large crowds of refugees fleeing Middle Eastern carnage rushing at Europe’s borders, or the insecurity brought by the global financial crisis. The most dramatic of these have eased, but inequality remains, migration continues and security threats have not disappeared.
Whether or not their efforts succeed, they signal that the center is, at long last, stirring. It hasn’t quite caught fire, but it is definitely shooting some sparks.
The most recent of the two dramas unfolded in Israel, where elections are scheduled for April 9. On Thursday, Israelis woke up to the news that the leaders of the parties ranking second and third in the polls have decided to come together, forming a bloc – the “Blue and White” – that has a very real chance of toppling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.
The news came on the heels of a similarly dramatic shakeup in Britain, where first a group of seven, then eight and as of Friday nine members of Parliament announced they were tearing up ties to the Labour Party. Another three from the Conservative Party joined them in protest against ideologies and policies they find unacceptable, in a quest to build a path to the political center.
In Israel, Netanyahu was on course to become the longest-serving premier in Israeli history when he called elections last December. But then, the taciturn Benny Gantz, a retired general and former chief of staff of the armed forces, announced he had decided to form his own party to try to bring the nation together, declaring in a speech in Tel Aviv that, “The mutual guarantee of a shared society is crumbling.” “The current regime,” he said, pointing at Netanyahu, “encourages incitement, subversion and hatred.”
Israelis seemed excited. Gantz’s Israel Resilience party quickly moved to second place in the polls, closing in, but not enough to defeat Likud. As if to help Gantz make his point, Netanyahu left many Israelis and key supporters of Israel in the US livid this week when he brokered a deal that could allow an ostracized racist party to enter parliament in partnership with one of his allies. That would improve his odds of staying in power and fighting against a series of corruption cases clouding his future.
Then, at the crack of dawn on Thursday, a bombshell, as Gantz announced that he and Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist, socially-conscious Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party were banding together to take Netanyahu on. They were joined by other prominent former military leaders with strong centrist and security credentials. Gantz and Lapid support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promise to keep Israelis safe, while paying attention to socio-economic issues that Netanyahu has neglected. The Blue and White inexcusably failed to include any women at the top of its list, which could hurt with at least half the electorate.
In joining forces with Gantz, Lapid is giving up his chance to head a ticket and become prime minister immediately if Likud is defeated. He has agreed to become foreign minister under Gantz, who has agreed to cede the top post to Lapid after two and a half years.
In Britain, on the other hand, there are no elections scheduled in the near future, but the rebel MPs – calling themselves the Independent Group (IG) – are sowing the centrist ground. Departing Labour MPs accused opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of engineering a hijacking of the party by the hard-left, and of turning Labour into an “institutionally anti-Semitic” organization bent on hiding the true scale of its hostility toward Jews. They, and their new former-Conservative partners, reject their respective parties’ failure to stop what they see in Brexit as a calamitous decision.
While the former Laborites complained about Corbyn’s hard-left, anti-business views, their new ex-Tory partners said Prime Minister Theresa May allowed the Conservative party to fall into the hands of hardliners driven by the Brexit dogma.
Members of the IG, not quite a party yet, have started discussing a new centrist agenda, away from the more extreme positions of the populist left and right. One ex-Tory MP, Heidi Allen, explained at a press conference, “we’re about creating something better that is bang smack in the center ground of British politics,” saying “I am convinced” that is what people want. She calculated that about one-third of the Conservative members of parliament share those views. And there were already signs that other members of parliament stand ready to leave their parties. There is also speculation that David Miliband, a stalwart of the Labour party from its centrist “Third Way” days, might return to Britain from the US, where he has lived since the party took a sharp left turn.
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Whether or not either of these centrist uprisings results in a shift in power, their message resonates. Many voters today sense that the looming threats today reside elsewhere, in the unraveling of social and political cohesion. That fear, whether in Europe, Israel, or the United States, does not favor the extremes. It does not favor demagogues. Polarization is propelled by its own momentum, so it’s not easy to break. But the pragmatic, responsible center, which had seemed to have gone extinct, is suddenly showing signs of life – not a moment too soon.