The centrist party Yesh Atid, which partnered Benny Gantz to form Kahol Lavan and then broke away from it, is in historical upheaval, undergoing a party leadership challenge by one of its figureheads, Ofer Shelah. But his announcement that he wanted to vie for the top spot of the anti-Netanyahu camp surprised no one in Israel’s political swamp. All the early signs were there already; and in fact, he might even have a shot.
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In an interview with Haaretz at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, when he was the fighting chairman of the Knesset's coronavirus committee, he hurled harsh accusations against Netanyahu’s esrtwhile political challengers, who had abandoned his party for the sake of unity with the prime minister. He called Gantz “a weak man… who simply collapsed under the pressure at the moment of truth... He ran into Netanyahu’s arms and now he’s begging for mercy," and tagged Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’s No. 2, as “subversive.”
But a few more statements in that interview also signaled his desire to take the top spot.
Shelah came out strongly against the culture of recycling former Israeli army generals, which the anti-Netanyahu camp likes so much. “I think that Kahol Lavan is also signaling to the public, let’s call it the left wing, or those who want an alternative to Likud, that perhaps the time has come to be weaned off of the invention that says let’s bring in generals who say nothing,” he said. “Let’s use their popularity and build a campaign where they’ll try to say as little as possible, and that’s how we’ll win.” What he is really saying is: Nothing will come of fielding pampered generals; instead, you should bet on hardboiled politicians like me.
Talking of the pressure under which he said Gantz collapsed, Shelah said: “Standing up to Netanyahu? That isn’t pressure. That’s a pleasure. Pressure is what small business owners are under now. And you’re there because you don’t have any alternative. Yair [Lapid] and I are sitting together and enjoying ourselves. If you didn’t go into politics to be in this moment – if you don’t have this megalomaniac tendency that says ‘I have to be there at this moment’ – then what are you doing there?”
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That statement was meant to be the entry ticket to the hearts of Netanyahu’s opponents, who have been hoping for two decades now for a “killer,” a “bad boy” that can get the job done. They were humiliated when the people they voted for three times joined forces with the great demon, and are looking for someone to lead them against the indefatigable hate machine that is Netanyahu.
Many have called Shelah “the brains behind Lapid,” his historic partner and founder of Yesh Atid, on whom he took delicate revenge in the interview. When I asked him whether Yesh Atid’s decision to no longer rule out partnering with Arab lawmakers was Lapid’s idea, the man who called Arab Knesset members “Zoabis,” in a mocking reference to controversial former Balad lawmaker Haneen Zoabi, he said: “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Lapid.” That is, we’re no longer one brain and one body, but separate entities.
The recognition of the Arab polity and the intention to bring Arab-majority parties into the anti-Netanyahu camp, out of the logical realization that no political changeover is possible without making them full partners, is one of the principles that distinguish Shelah from other centrist leaders. For those who curl up apologetically every time they are accused of cooperating with the predominantly Arab Joint List, this is a very bold change. For years, Yesh Atid tried to disguise itself as soft right wing, and attract people disappointed with Netanyahu mainly over corruption accusations, his behavior and that of his family. Shelah will be mercilessly attacked by the right wing for his intentions, but it could turn into his strength. It will differentiate him from the generals and their mumbled Zionist clichés, who surrendered to every politician without a voting base, like Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, in delegitimizing the Arab political leadership.
Shelah also talks about a new leadership contract between citizens and their elected representatives. This is appropriate for the moment the country is currently living through, when the public’s faith in the government has been shattered by the confused, contradictory and reckless management of the health and economic crises. His operative record at the helm of the coronavirus committee, although it was short-lived due to the establishment of a government and the handover of his position to the coalition, could be a preview of this. The man knows how to work.
Shelah is indeed made of the right stuff to lead a humiliated and cowed opposition, whose soul is still burning from a deep sense of betrayal. If his touted cooperation with the Arabs does succeed, and he manages to sweep in enough left of center voters, he could bring about something new. This is in fact his only chance to rise above another niche party, which is sophisticated and refined, but comes with only a tiny number of Knesset seats. Shelah’s glass ceiling is his branding as a left-wing, arrogant member of the media elite. As opposed to Lapid, he was never a recognized authority on “what is Israeli” - a common refrain from the Yesh Atid leader’s long-running newspaper column. And even that wasn’t enough for Lapid to become a realistic contender for the premiership.
Shelah’s distinctive opinions were always in the deep left – which did not hesitate to criticize him sharply during Yesh Atid’s pathetic dress-up as right wing, and the attacks on the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence. He could have easily led far-left party Meretz, but Shelah never wanted to go there. On the contrary, he was scornful of the ability of the party he once voted for to exert any substantial influence. He always aimed higher.
Will he manage to break through those barriers? That is an even greater challenge than breaking the draconian charter of Yesh Atid, which perpetuates Lapid’s leadership seemingly forever, and persuading the activists of the party’s well-oiled machine, who are so loyal to their leader, to betray him. But if he meets this challenge, he could bring about a brand new political platform. Right now, all the attention is focused on the leadership of the party, and the opposition; a potential shot at the premiership is still far ahead. A smart man like Shelah knows that the long road must be traveled in small, wise steps.