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New book explores how political centrism can provide the answers to extremism

Edited by Yair Zivan, a longtime adviser to Yair Lapid, ‘The Center Must Hold’ brings together centrist voices from across the globe

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Yair Zivan and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid

If there’s one person who could successfully pull together a book about the future of centrist politics, it’s Yair Zivan, the longtime senior foreign policy adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister and current Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

Zivan, who has worked with Lapid for nearly 10 years, was among those who assisted him in setting up – and managing – the most complex and broadest government Israel has ever experienced, a coalition that included eight political parties spanning the political spectrum, among them, for the first time ever, an Islamist faction.

His experiences inside Israel’s political center and the connections he made with other centrist politicians around the world prompted Zivan, who previously served as a spokesman to legendary statesman Shimon Peres, to seek out prominent voices to help him lay out a vision for why, and how, centrism can provide the antithesis to extremism and polarization.  

From his current boss to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, as well as more than 30 other leading centrist politicians, thinkers, policymakers and writers, Zivan put together an ideological thesis and practical guideline for how the political center can rise to the top and offer the public a hopeful – and stable – alternative.

In his introduction to The Center Must Hold: Why Centrism is the Answer to Extremism and Polarization, slated for release in the U.K. and U.S. on June 27, Zivan, describes an epiphany he had three years ago on the day Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, and Naftali Bennett, leader of the New Right party, announced the formation of their unusual coalition.

“[I]t was impossible not to be struck by the diversity of the ministers around the table – from the progressive left to the nationalist right and including Israel’s first Arab party in a governing coalition,” Zivan writes of that dramatic day in Israeli politics.

But, he notes in the book’s opening pages, despite the differing views of each political party, “the heart of that coalition ran through the political center. Not only was the largest party in the coalition a true centrist one – Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – but the ethos of the coalition was quintessentially centrist.”

Zivan, who spent his formative years in the U.K. before moving to Israel in 2009, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview that throughout his years working with Lapid, helping the journalist-turned-politician build connections with centrist legislators elsewhere, he’d also been trying to “sharpen” the definition of centrist politics, not only as a way to push back at critics who often claimed the political center is merely the wishy-washy middle ground between the extremes, but also to enable it to move forward and attract more supporters. 

The eventual impetus for the book came in November 2022, following the fall of the Bennett-Lapid government and as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to assemble his current coalition of ideologically aligned far-right parties.

“I felt that the coalition being formed was everything that my politics was opposed to, so I really started working on getting the book together out of a sense of needing to figure out where centrism needs to go,” explained Zivan, who said he drew on the positive and negative experiences from the previous government, as well as other observations of centrism from around the world, to create the central thesis for The Center Must Hold.

“I think there’s been this kind of loose grouping of people who see themselves as centrist, but they have never really come together in this way,” he said of his efforts to secure contributors such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Israeli author Micah Goodman, British journalist Philip Collins, columnist Jennifer Rubin and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“I reached out to a few people, and they were very kind and supportive, which allowed me to build up from there,” Zivan said. “What I found was that some people really wanted to be a part of this, and they recommended others who really share our vision.”

“They don’t all agree about absolutely everything, but then again neither do all conservatives or all socialists, so it’s OK for centrists to have some gaps,” he observed. “The core principles, the ones that every single person in the book lines up behind, are the unflinching defense of liberal democracy, the need to balance the tensions that exist in modern societies, and the liberal patriotism that drives a lot of the narrative of centrism.”

In the book, Zivan highlights two main themes: that political centrism is a coherent ideology set around core values and is not necessarily just the political middle ground, and that it is the best antidote for polarization and populism, which have become “a dangerous trend for democracies.”

Zivan and the other authors delve into the roots of centrism, explore the most complex issues confronting the concept, explain how it can and should work and finally lay out how centrism can provide the answer to the political crisis faced by many democracies around the world.

“A great deal has been written about how the dangers to democracy are incredibly high,” he told JI. “But what we need is a political program that answers this, and what is clear to me is that the illiberal right cannot be countered by the illiberal left, and vice versa.”

“The answer does not come from the mirror image, it is a political horseshoe,” Zivan explained. “The way to combat polarization, extremism and populism has to run through political centrism, it has to run through something that is fundamentally different to the extremes – the question is how do we do that?”

“I think [answering that question] is something that centrists haven’t done enough, and I hope the book starts to address this,” he continued, adding that he hopes the book will offer a way forward with the “politics of hope and pragmatism.”

For Zivan, who saw firsthand how a centrist government fell apart because of the conflicting ideologies between coalition partners, said that the first step is to establish a belief that “centrism is the right approach” and then work on making it more effective for the future.

“If you think it is the right approach, if you agree that we’re better off having a politics of hope that looks to move us forward instead of having the politics of fear, and you agree that we need to balance the tensions that exist within societies and you agree that the old ideologies are outdated and don’t serve us anymore, then you can begin to ask how do we make it work? How do we make it effective?” he stated.

“In politics, you don’t always win, there are ups and downs, there are times when you do better and times when you do worse, but you need to stick at it,” Zivan continued. “You need to sharpen your message and you need to work out what you did well and improve what you didn’t and adapt where you need to, but overall, I think there is a track record that shows centrism can work.” 

“Only if we come at it from a point of view that says ‘this needs to work,’ then we can start working out how to make sure that we also win and deliver it effectively when we do,” he said. 

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