What’s in the Center?

Every so often, the cultural gap between Israelis and American Jews yawns open so wide, you could almost fall in and break your leg. That’s pretty much what happened to Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Israel’s latest general-turned-politician, when he came to America late last month on a whirlwind meet-the-candidate tour.

Shahak, recently retired as Israel’s military chief of staff, was in New York to introduce his newly formed centrist party to American Jews. He wanted to explain why he’s so eager to oust Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He also wanted to raise money.

Wherever he appeared, American Jews went in charmed and left confused. Listeners found him evasive on religious pluralism, vague on the peace process, possessed of a winsome smile and good posture but seemingly little else. Some were troubled by the idea of a general, barely out of uniform, challenging a civilian leader.

His aides, oddly, thought he did fine. Israelis eat this up, they insisted. The Americans will get it soon. Just watch.

It didn’t happen. If Shahak’s visit proved anything, it’s that American Jews and Israelis don’t understand each other anymore.

Religious pluralism was Shahak’s biggest problem. In a miracle of bad timing, he hit New York just as the Knesset was enacting a new law to bar Reform and Conservative Jews from local religious councils. The bill passed by one vote — cast, press reports said, by Yitzhak Mordechai, the Danny Thomas look-alike who had just quit as Netanyahu’s defense minister and was now heading Shahak’s party.

A firestorm awaited Shahak. “Why,” one Reform leader asked over dinner, “should we support you now?”

Shahak had an answer, but not one the Americans wanted to hear. The goal of his still-unnamed party, he said, is healing Israel’s internal divisions. External problems — fighting Arabs, making peace — are problems Israel knows how to deal with. Not so, domestic rifts. Ashkenazi-Sephardi, right-left or religious-secular, these require patient dialogue. “We need to abandon the idea that we can defeat each other in the Supreme Court or the Knesset,” he told one group.

Israelis know what Shahak is talking about. Their society is bitterly divided, paralyzed by unresolved disputes. Many see the centrist party as a step toward healing.

“On matters of basic values, we simply have to talk to each other and convince one another,” Shahak told me. “That’s the only solution, even if it takes a long time. Otherwise I’ll have a majority today and you’ll have a majority tomorrow, and it will never end.”

American Jews generally don’t get it. Those who came to hear Shahak seemed to think that, because his centrist party favors moderation and reform, it would take their side. They wanted victory, not dialogue.

“We thought this party was going to stand up against this sort of religious coercion,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, after a telephone conference call with Shahak. The general turned down a Reform request to meet in person.

If Shahak’s religious views irritated American Jews, his views on peace mystified them. Many expected clear plans for reviving the peace process. What they got was “Trust me.”

“I can do it better than Netanyahu,” he said.

“He’s charming, but he’s vague,” one veteran liberal activist said. “What does he stand for? I didn’t hear anything.”

Israelis hear it differently. Shahak’s views on peace have been an open secret for years. He’s been elbow deep in Israeli-Palestinian contacts since he headed military intelligence a decade ago. He was Yitzhak Rabin’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians. He believes the Palestinians genuinely want peace. Netanyahu, since becoming prime minister, has barely spoken to him.

Netanyahu’s highly public spat with Shahak is symptomatic of a deeper split between Netanyahu and the security services. For years, they’ve been sending him intelligence reports that indicate the Palestinians are serious about peace — but that hard-line Israeli moves would spark violence. Netanyahu dismisses such reports as leftist propaganda from a biased brass. Now the brass is joining the opposition.

The exodus isn’t entirely new. Israeli generals have been retiring into politics for years. Most choose Labor, while only a handful — Ariel Sharon, Raphael Eitan, Rehavam Ze’evi — have gone rightward. Likud leaders say that it’s a result of decades-old Labor cronyism. But that’s wearing thin after 20 years of Likud dominance.

“The truth is, those who are professionals know that dominating another people is a liability, not an asset,” says Ephraim Sneh, an ex-general turned Labor lawmaker.

Shahak agrees. “The place high officers go is to the center, center-left and center-right,” he argues.

Nothing in the past, though, compares to the current stampede of top brass to the opposition. Besides centrists Shahak and Mordechai, recent defectors include ex-Deputy Chief of Staff Matan Vilnai and ex-West Bank commander Oren Shachor, both to Labor. Several lesser-known figures, too, have joined Labor and the centrists, mainly as advisers and volunteers. Many sound almost desperate to unseat Netanyahu.

The reason is fear for the peace process. “Continuing the peace process is an Israeli need,” says Shahak. “Of course, you can’t make peace with only one side, but, in this case, there is another side. A certain trust has grown up after all the years of hostility. The bad thing that’s happened in the last years is that the trust is being destroyed — not only between us and the Palestinians, but with the broader Arab world, the United States and Europe. The Israeli commitment to peace is no longer taken for granted.”

That was why Shahak stepped aside as leader of the new party and let Yitzhak Mordechai take over. Mordechai has a huge following among his fellow Sephardic Jews, Netanyahu’s core constituency. The centrists bank on wooing a chunk away from the Likud.

Mordechai’s vote on the religious-councils bill was an opening shot in the war for those votes. Working-class Sephardim tend to be traditional, respectful of their rabbis, suspicious of liberals. They will turn the election. Reform Jews will not.

Shahak and his aides watched the American outcry over the vote with a mixture of alarm and resignation. They’d like our support. “What American Jews say and do is very important in Israel,” says one aide. “Public opinion in Israel is very influenced by what happens here.”

And then there’s the matter of campaign money. The centrists hope to raise three-fifths of their projected $10 million war chest here. That’s a taller order now than it was a few weeks ago.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.