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The Challenge Facing Israel's New Opposition

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Protesters against 'weakening Israel's democracy' near the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 23 2020
Protesters, waving black flags, demonstrate against 'weakening Israel's democracy' under cover of the coronavirus crisis near the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 23 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Last month, just before Benny Gantz announced he would be joining Benjamin Netanyahu in a governing coalition – and as a result split Kahol Lavan down the middle – his party leadership partner Yair Lapid published an essay in Haaretz. The headline was “Not only ‘Anyone but Bibi’: In the war of ideas, the center has solutions.”

The article’s premise was that only Israel’s centrists can properly combine the Jewish and democratic values inherent in the state’s character, and that, as Israel’s centrist party, Kahol Lavan was much more than the “Anyone but Bibi” party. Kahol Lavan, Lapid argued, had fundamental ideological differences from the parties in the Netanyahu camp.

A lot has happened since Lapid wrote that. What he likes to call “the Israeli center” – at least half of it – hasn’t held: Gantz’s wing of Kahol Lavan, along with Labor, has now agreed to join a Likud-led coalition. In fact, three out of four parties that now make up the new Israeli opposition were until recently partnered with parties that are going to be members of the coalition.

So what divides Gantz’s Kahol Lavan from Lapid’s Yesh Atid party? What differentiates Amir Peretz’s Labor from the lawmakers of Labour-Gesher-Meretz who are staying in the opposition? Or, for that matter, what’s the difference between Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which less than six years ago was still part of a joint slate and parliamentary party with Netanyahu’s Likud?

Yair Lapid speaks at the 'Black Flag' protest in Rabin Square, April 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Suddenly, plenty of Lapid’s fellow “centrists” are prepared to serve under Netanyahu. At least they proved Lapid’s point that they weren’t just about “Anyone but Bibi.”

But that really was the only distinction between most of the opposition parties and their ideological partners up until recently. One group will join a coalition with Netanyahu; the other won’t. And that is the only thing binding Lapid and Lieberman, together with Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz and the Joint List’s Ayman Odeh. This opposition to Netanyahu has become even more pronounced now that Gantz and Peretz have agreed to join him.

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, right, and Labor chairman Amir Peretz after deciding to merge their parties for Israel's 2020 elections, December 12, 2020Credit: Meretz / Twitter

In fact, the coalition and opposition nearly mirror each other. Yisrael Beiteinu is identical to Likud. Kahol Lavan and Yesh Atid are Siamese twins that have just been surgically separated, while Labor and Meretz are now two tiny peas in a pod. The only difference is that the coalition has the ultra-Orthodox parties in it, while the opposition has the Israeli Arabs.

This explains how Netanyahu has survived, despite it all. Most Israelis want him replaced – that much was clear from the results of the election on March 2. But his coalition is loyal to its Haredi partners and they reciprocate with unconditional support for the beleaguered prime minister.

Benny Gantz after a meeting with Avigdor Lieberman in Ramat Gan, March 9, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

The opposition, on the other hand, was not prepared to embrace its Arab component in order to replace Netanyahu, which just goes to show that there are things even stronger than “Anyone but Bibi.”

There’s nothing wrong with centrism, of course. Israel arguably never had a truly left-wing government. In its heyday, the dominant Labor Party was on the left only in the sense that its leaders believed that a planned and semi-collectivized economy was the best way to guarantee Israel’s survival and security. And Lapid’s case for it is coherent and persuasive. But Lapid has been in politics for exactly eight years now, since he first registered Yesh Atid as a party. He’s done well to maintain Yesh Atid as a centrist presence for this long, but he’s failed to create a credible alternative to Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Netanyahu flanked by ougoing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, left, and Interior Minister Arye Dery at a conference of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hamodia newspaper, November, 20, 2016.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

In fact, he’s done a lot to deny Israelis an alternative. Not only did Yesh Atid serve to further split those who oppose Likud, weakening Labor and Meretz. Until a few weeks ago, Lapid was one of the main mainstream politicians ruling out any form of coalition cooperation with the predominantly Arab Joint List.

Now, for the first time in his political career, Lapid is about to become the official leader of the opposition. He’ll be good at one part of the job: Holding the government to account, with a noisy campaign of attrition in the Knesset and the media. But can he fulfill the other role of an opposition leader: To try to bring down and replace the government?

Lapid can present an alternative to the Netanyahu-Gantz government in two ways. He can join forces with Lieberman and attack the coalition for bowing to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox at the expense of the rest of Israeli society. Or, he can link up with what’s left of Meretz and try to build an alliance with at least some of the political representatives of the Israeli Arabs to build an Israeli civilian front.

Both courses of action, however, are unlikely to create a wider base that would attract defectors from the new coalition and earn more votes in the next election, whenever it takes place.

Can Lapid do both? Can he build a wider opposition camp that targets both the narrow special interest lobby of the Haredi politicians while at the same time promoting a truly “centrist” vision of Israeli citizenship that has room for Israeli Arabs (and ordinary ultra-Orthodox people)?

His track record doesn’t suggest he has it in him. Whenever faced with difficult choices in the past, he has reverted to easy nationalist clichés, rather than taking a chance on an unpopular position. But maybe with the burden of leading the opposition on his shoulders, he can allow himself to risk unpopularity. Perhaps he’s finally learned that centrism doesn’t mean trying to get everyone to like you. It’s a serious ideology that people have yet to be convinced about.

The Israeli center can be an alternative to Netanyahu-nationalism, but it needs working at – and Lapid has barely started.

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