An opportunity for the generals’ party to build a real opposition

Yair Lapid announces that Maj.-Gen. (res.) Orna Barbivai will join Yesh Atid on January 1, 2019 (photo credit: TPS)
Yair Lapid announces that Maj.-Gen. (res.) Orna Barbivai will join Yesh Atid on January 1, 2019
(photo credit: TPS)
 "We must do everything to back the government’s decisions,” said retired Maj.-Gen. Orna Barbivai in response to the latest escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza. The statement by the newly-elected Knesset Member on the opposition Blue and White slate – the so-called “generals’ party” – encapsulates the ineptness of Israel’s opposition and why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been able to run the country virtually unopposed for the past decade, facing pressure only from his right flank.
If it were running the country, what would the Blue and White Party do differently than Netanyahu in response to the violence on the Gaza border?
Blue and White tied Netanyahu’s Likud party with 35 mandates it captured in the April 9 general elections, though it failed to unseat him. As with his predecessors, the new “opposition” led by Benny Gantz failed to offer an alternative to the policies of Likud, turning the elections into another referendum about Netanyahu. As a result, the nation stuck with the known commodity rather than with the untested rookie politician who offered little new.
By downplaying national security issues, which the generals’ party presumably understands best, the Blue and White team is continuing to miss an opportunity to reshape the national discourse and effect change.
As Netanyahu cobbles together his fifth coalition, the Blue and White list owes its million-plus voters something Israelis haven’t had in many years: a real, fighting opposition.
Much is at stake.
The on-again, off-again deadly exchanges between Gaza’s militants and Israel underscores the Netanyahu government’s incompetence in addressing the Gaza tinderbox. The new government is expected to continue to turn a blind eye to corruption, while chipping away at the rule of law by offering Netanyahu immunity from prosecution. It will neither annul nor likely strive to amend the contentious “Nation-State Law,” which has alienated minority groups by defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people while downgrading Arabic from an official language to an elusive “special status.” Religious pluralism, an important issue for the Israel-Diaspora relationship, will take a back seat in what is expected to be the most right-wing, religious government in Israel’s history.
Most ominously, annexation of the West Bank is now on the table.
Just days before the elections, Netanyahu vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty over settlements in Area C of the West Bank – a move he had long resisted but now has endorsed due to his domestic political needs. Netanyahu’s coalition partners will demand that he fulfill his pledge to pursue annexation in exchange for immunity from a looming indictment. Netanyahu ally Yuli Edelstein, who was reelected Knesset Speaker unopposed and supported enthusiastically by Blue and White’s number two – “He is the right man for the job,” tweeted Yair Lapid prior to the vote – has stated unequivocally that “the 21st Knesset will apply Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria.”
Veterans of the security establishment have long opposed annexation, arguing that it would turn Israel into an unstable binational state, thereby ending the Zionist dream. Nonpartisan organizations like the Peace and Security Association and the newer Commanders for Israel’s Security – representing hundreds of retired senior generals and former top officials of the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) intelligence services and their police equivalents – have been urging Netanyahu’s government for years to pursue the two-state solution in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state. Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears, but their fellow veterans in Blue and White are now in a position to fight for this goal in the opposition.
Blue and White’s three ex-IDF chiefs of staff contributed to the plan unveiled last October by Israel’s leading think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), which aims to prevent the “existential threat” of a binational state. Even Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, the party’s most hawkish ex-IDF chief, who does not support an independent Palestinian state, had in the past stressed that large-scale annexation would be “a grave mistake” that would undermine “Israel’s unshakable commitment to the preservation of the country’s Jewish and democratic character.”
The generals’ party risks Israel’s security – and its own disappearance – by continuing its silence on this existential issue.
Although support for a two-state solution has fallen in the past two decades, it remains the preferred solution of both Israelis and Palestinians. INSS’s annual National Security Index, released in the beginning of the year, shows that 58% of the Jewish public supports the two-state solution, while 42% opposes it. A clear majority, 62%, wants to see an agreement with the Palestinians; only 25% are interested in annexation.
For change to take place, Israel’s opposition must put an end to its decade-long tradition of deliberate vagueness, coupled with delegitimization of the Left (a Lapid specialty) – both failed tactics that have resulted only in the cannibalization of the Left and the reelection time and again of Netanyahu.
The last two IDF chiefs who defeated a Likud prime minister – Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin vs. Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and Labor’s Ehud Barak vs. Likud’s Netanyahu in 1999 – did so by calling for a reordering of national priorities and offering clear policy alternatives to the incumbent’s failed policies. They took on the controversial issues of peace and security, rather than avoiding them.
The opposition party – which boasts an unprecedented three former IDF chiefs and other former senior national security officials elected to represent it in the Knesset – must now do the same. Israel’s future depends on it.
Guy Ziv is an assistant professor of international relations at the American University’s School of International Service in Washington. He is the author of the book Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel.