Centre Party (Israel)
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|Founded||23 February 1999|
|Split from||Likud-Gesher-Tzomet and Labor Party|
|Most MKs||6 (1999–2001)|
|Fewest MKs||3 (2002–2003)|
The Centre Party (Hebrew: מִפְלֶגֶת הַמֶרְכָּז, translit. Mifleget Hamerkaz), originally known as Israel in the Centre, was a short-lived political party in Israel. Formed in 1999 by former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, the aim was to create a group of moderates to challenge both Binyamin Netanyahu on the right and opposition leader Ehud Barak's Labour Party on the left.
The party was established on 23 February 1999, towards the end of the 14th Knesset's term, by Mordechai, David Magen and Dan Meridor from Likud, Hagai Meirom and Nissim Zvili of Labour, and Eliezer Sandberg of Tzomet. However, the most significant ally Mordechai had made was General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the just-retired army Chief-of-Staff who had been his most bitter rival for that post in 1994.
It borrowed many of its themes from The Third Way, a group that split with the Labour Party in 1994 over the latter's willingness to negotiate the return of the Golan Heights to Syria for a peace treaty. However, by 1999 The Third Way was a partner of the Likud government and had lost much of its public credit due to its small influence on Netanyahu. Mordechai, who was less hawkish than Netanyahu, wanted further progress in the Oslo Accords, and clashed with the prime minister and other members of his cabinet. Though few of the new party's positions were original, it was considered impossible for Mordechai to break with the Likud in any other way, as joining the Labour Party would mean taking the passenger seat to Ehud Barak, who was far more hated by Mordechai than Netanyahu.
The joining of Dan Meridor was one of the best events of the early days of the party. One of the Likud's younger and more professional members, Meridor had a solid record as minister of justice from 1988 until 1992, was the son of Irgun resistance member and later Knesset member Eliyahu Meridor, and was a civilian counterbalance to Mordechai.
Prior to the 1999 elections the party changed its name to the Centre Party. Mordechai was also a candidate in the direct election for prime minister but dropped out before the ballot when it became clear that Ehud Barak was rapidly rising in the polls. In elections to the Knesset itself the Centre Party took roughly 5% of the vote, enough for 6 seats.
Joining the government
The party joined Ehud Barak's One Israel coalition alongside Shas, Meretz, the National Religious Party and Yisrael BaAliyah. Mordechai became Minister of Transport and Deputy Prime Minister, whilst Lipkin-Shahak became Minister of Tourism. Following Shas leaving the coalition in August 2000, former mayor of Tel Aviv, Roni Milo, was made Minister of Health. However, Mordechai was brought down by a sex scandal from his years in the army, and resigned from the Knesset on 30 May 2000; Lipkin-Shahak replaced him as Minister of Transport. Following Mordechai's resignation, the party began to disintegrate.
The perceived blandness of the Centre Party during the frenzied opposition campaign against Barak made it a dead duck in the Knesset, and soon its legislators began to desert, although Shahak would not resign from the cabinet, and the Centre Party was the only group that stayed the duration of the Barak government. Milo and former Likud member Yehiel Lasry defected back to Likud, and Rabin-Pelossof, Lipkin, and Uri Savir formed the New Way after Barak lost elections for prime minister to Ariel Sharon in 2001. By the end of the Knesset term only Meridor and Nehama Ronen remained in the faction and the party did not run in the 2003 elections.
When Mordechai campaigned in 1999 for prime minister, it was rightly believed that he would be the factor that would kill the chance of Netanyahu's reelection. It was not yet known whether the Center Party was simply a group of disgruntled Likud and Labour members, or were progressive ideologues of their parties. The worst problem they encountered was the ascendance of Shas, the Haredi pressure group that drew masses of Mizrahim that otherwise may have voted for Mordechai. Even at its height, the Center was only the fourth largest party in Barak's coalition, after Labour, Shas, and Meretz respectively. They also could not effectively counter Meretz's leftward slant that ultimately led to defection of more moderate allies in the coalition.
When the Sharon government came to power, Lipkin and his New Way broke with the Center and tried to be a part of the opposition, but had minimal effect against the broad coalition that included Likud, Labour, Shas, and numerous other parties across the spectrum. Both Meridor and Lipkin became disillusioned with politics by the time of the 2003 elections, and neither ran. Lipkin later joined the Labour Party in an internal role.