For the First Time in Years, Netanyahu Faces Political Opposition Worthy of the Name

Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya'alon's Herzliya conference addresses should very much worry Netanyahu. They are a part of a group that carries weight in the public Israeli sphere that might start working, together or apart, to depose him.

Moshe Ya'alon at the annual Herzliya Conference, June 16, 2016.
Moti Milrod

The final day of the annual Herzliya Conference, provided Israel with what it has sorely lacked for the last three years – an opposition worthy of the name. 

Ironically, the two people who positioned themselves on Thursday as the leaders of the camp seeking to topple Benjamin Netanyahu’s government aren’t even in the Knesset. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon resigned just last month, while former Prime Minister Ehud Barak quit politics three years ago.

Netanyahu, who in recent years has gotten used to running political campaigns as Gulliver in Lilliput, suddenly found himself facing two heavyweight political rivals who are challenging and attacking him furiously. Compared to the angry denunciations of Barak and Ya’alon, his other potential rivals – opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who still seems to be praying to join the coalition; Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who consistently refrains from attacking Netanyahu; and Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon, who falls in line with the prime minister’s every whim – look like utter political dwarves.

In their speeches, Ya’alon and Barak presented a serious indictment of the prime minister. They two aren’t exactly bosom buddies or political allies, but large parts of their speeches sounded like carbon copies of each other, and their conclusions were the same: Netanyahu is leading Israel into the abyss. 

Barak and Ya’alon charged that Netanyahu, whether voluntarily or out of weakness, had been kidnapped by a far-right, racist minority. They accused him of being a liar and a demagogue who sows fear, panic and despair among the public and cheapens the memory of the Holocaust. They said he’s dividing the nation, setting different communities against each other and undermining the institutions of democracy and the rule of law. 

Barak even added that Netanyahu is spearheading a policy of one state for two peoples, which will turn Israel into either a binational state or an apartheid one – either of which would constitute the end of the Zionist enterprise.

Barak and Ya’alon, both former army chiefs of staff who also spent years as Netanyahu’s defense minister over the past seven years, have now joined the long list of former senior defense officials who, since 2009, have publicly attacked Netanyahu and claimed that he is causing serious damage to the country and endangering its future. Others on this list include former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin, the late Mossad chief Meir Dagan, and yet another former chief of staff and ex-defense minister, Shaul Mofaz.

Many other former senior army, Shin Bet and Mossad officers are willing to speak only off the record, but among them, too, the consensus against Netanyahu is almost wall-to-wall.

How does Netanyahu explain the fact that all the defense ministers who worked under him, from Yitzhak Mordechai onward, have painted such worrying pictures of his conduct? Is it all personal? Is it all political? Do all of them just want to undermine Bibi?

On the other hand, one should note that both Barak and Ya'alon had served for long years in Netanyahu's governments and kept silent. When they were sitting at the defense minister's chair they didn't even voice a hint of the harsh criticism they slammed at Netanyahu on Thursday. At times, their silence stemmed from their hope of influencing from the inside, and at times from political considerations. In some cases, they were also a part of the "sins" they accused Netanyahu of, if passively or actively.

Netanyahu also remembers this, and the claims of political zigzagging were a key topic in the responses he issued following Ya'alon and Baraks' speeches. After all, Netanyahu understands zigzagging. However, Netanyahu and the Likud's attempt to automatically label Ya'alon and even Barak as "leftists" wasn't too convincing. Likud's claim that Barak's call for a public protest against the government a year after it was democratically elected was particularly outrages. After all, it was Netanyahu himself who supported the public protest against the Olmert government following the Second Lebanon War – six months after it was elected.

Barak and Ya'alon's addresses should very much worry Netanyahu, politically. Against them, he can't just release disrespectful comments like the ones he published against his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, claiming he only heard tennis balls whistling past his ear, rather than bullets. Ya'alon and Barak are a part of a group that carries weight in the public Israeli sphere – from the right, center and left – that starts to gather, challenging Netanyahu and might start working, together or apart, to depose him. If Herzog, a relatively lightweight opponent, managed to bring more than 800 thousand voters, Netanyahu should be worried about competing against heavyweight candidates who know a thing or two about him and his weaknesses.