Tera Incognita: Where is the opposition?

Gantz has been in a kind of political bunker for weeks.

June 14, 2019 01:20
Blue and White leaders

Blue and White leaders, (L-R) Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe (Bogie) Yaalon, and Gabi Ashkenazi, at a press conference, April 1st, 2019. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)


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Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz appeared to try to steady the flagging opposition this week when he criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for weakness in the face of Hamas rocket fire.

“Netanyahu is strong only when he talks,” he said.

He also called on the attorney-general to move forward with the indictment process in several corruption cases hanging over the prime minister’s head.

Perhaps Blue and White is emerging from its slumber following the April elections. Gantz has been in a kind of political bunker for weeks, political correspondent Gil Hoffman wrote in The Jerusalem Post this week. The bunker mentality seems to go along with the overall feeling that the country is slouching toward another election in the fall with an inevitable outcome.

Many people greeted the May 29 news of another election with a shrug. That seemed a bit strange. Turnout in April was 68%, which is in line with the past several elections. You have to go back to the 1990s to find turnout in the high 70s. Four million people voted in these elections. That’s almost twice as many as voted in the 1988 elections, when turnout was 79.7% and Likud had 40 seats to the 39 of the Alignment (now Labor).

You could compare our electoral politics today to the 1988 election. Just as back then, Shas came in third with 6 seats and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party Agudat Yisrael came in fourth with five (Degel Hatorah finished with two seats). Today the haredi parties have 16 seats, compared to 1988’s 13. Back then Hadash had four seats and its leader was Jewish; now it has six running with Ta’al and its leader is Arab. Back in 1988 the left-wing Ratz had five seats under Shulamit Aloni, and today Tamar Zandberg has four seats with Meretz. The Union of Right-Wing Parties has five seats today; the National Religious Party had the same back then.

It seems like when people look back at that era in politics, there were big questions about where the country was heading. The same kinds of controversies existed between secular and religious, Left and Right, racism and coexistence, Palestinians and the Land of Israel. But it seems many today have given up on discussing these larger issues. There is some discussion in legacy media about whether or not Israel should be ruled by “Jewish law” or whether or not the US ambassador’s comments about “annexation” were helpful.

The debate between what is ostensibly the opposition and the government is more about who will be more tough on security, who is less “weak,” who are the real “right-wing” leaders.

Where in some Western countries the label “right-wing” might be seen as negative, here politicians scramble over one another to grab at the goblet of the real, authentic, new, pure, historical “Right.” It’s not entirely clear what these parties grasping at the mantle of the Right believe being “Right” means. In the last election, the New Right, Kulanu, and the Likud didn’t seem that much different.

There is no real opposition party here. This was brought into stark contrast when 74 members of the 120-seat Knesset voted to dissolve the parliament on May 29, before they had even done anything after the April election. Supposedly this was because Netanyahu couldn’t form a government. But it really stemmed from his not being able to form the government he wanted. But there was little pushback on this decision, either among the public or among Blue and White, which had the same number of seats as Likud. Whatever. New elections. Meh.

WHY IS there so much apathy? Is it because citizens are privileged and relaxing by their pools and questions of government are just boring? No. Israel has threats: from Hamas in the South and Hezbollah in the North. And it has economic challenges.

But Israel hasn’t had a real, strong opposition for more than a decade. In general, this is because on security issues there is a strong consensus. Even though polls will show all sorts of contradictory results – such that around half of the public wants to end the blockade of Gaza and 42% would accept annexing part of the West Bank – most prefer the status quo. They remember too well that tinkering with the status quo in the 1990s fueled the Second Intifada. That generation, the generation that grew up with bus bombings, is more and more influential today.

But Israel’s malaise has commonalities with its democratic peers in the West. Many countries have begun to wonder if there isn’t something wrong with liberal democracy. The Yellow Vests in France, or those wondering what the heck is going on with Brexit, realize their systems are broken – three years after the UK voted to leave the EU and the Conservative Party still can’t figure out its leadership or a plan to leave.

Democracies used to be better at governance than dictatorships because they had a critical media and opposition parties that held government to account. It was a free market of ideas and a constant struggle of competition that made them stronger. Dictatorships, by contrast, ossified and declined because no one could question anything. Today the opposite appears true. Media in democracy is suffering layoffs while the authoritarian regimes, such as Qatar, Turkey and Russia, have media in English penetrating the West.

ISRAEL IS a hybrid state, neither Eastern nor Western. It has elements of both. Has it become more authoritarian? The Left would say yes. But when Mapai ran the country in the 1950s it was quite authoritarian, keeping Arabs under curfew and confiscating lands. Banning The Beatles in the 1960s.

Certainly the current prime minister appears to have consolidated power and has become suspicious of anyone who seems to rise up to rival him. He has become an expert at consuming other parties on the Right, teaming up with Yisrael Beytenu in one election and gobbling up Kulanu for the upcoming one. He neutralizes any competition and tends to drive them out. Moshe Ya’alon, for instance, ended up in Blue and White. Naftali Bennett crashed in the last election. He juggles his opponents like he’s a stage manager and they are extras. One time Yair Lapid was in government. Now he’s over with Blue and White.

Having all these former officials and generals should make Blue and White stronger. But it hasn’t really. If it was strong then it would have put forward an alternative to Netanyahu before the last election and in the horse-trading after. But while it got the same number of seats as Likud, the feeling is that Likud won. And it will win again, many seem to think.

What’s happened to Netanyahu along the way? Some critics have seen Netanyahu as possessing Nixonian qualities. Do they mean paranoia or Richard Nixon’s genius for foreign policy and getting on with China? Maybe both.

Netanyahu, according to a 2012 report, used to admire the Carthaginian General Hannibal. Perhaps today Netanyahu, who is often called “King Bibi,” is afflicted with the same challenges Julius Caesar faced. He wants to do what is right for the country and he faces an often befuddled opposition. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that in the long term, it will be good for Israel to slouch into another election without asking what the country wants to be in the next decades.

Worshiping the status quo because of fear of instability, which is essentially the nation’s policy, works for a time. But can it work in the long term? Perhaps only if all of Israel’s neighbors also want the status quo.

That is Netanyahu’s gamble. It is up to Gantz or whoever emerges after him to provide an alternative that isn’t simply the status quo on steroids.

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