Israel's center-left is in the opposition, and it is crumbling

INSIDE POLITICS: Once they were eight, sitting around the Bennett-Lapid cabinet table, all sharing one mutual achievement. Now they are five and sharing a defeat.

 PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid convenes a meeting of his coalition partners in the Knesset on Tuesday.  (photo credit: ASSI EFRATI/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid convenes a meeting of his coalition partners in the Knesset on Tuesday.
(photo credit: ASSI EFRATI/GPO)

It is one of those pictures that’s worth a thousand words. A short while before the 25th Knesset swearing-in ceremony took place, the five party leaders of the outgoing coalition gathered in the outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s parliamentary chambers.

It was the first time Lapid, Benny Gantz, Merav Michaeli, Avigdor Liberman and Mansour Abbas convened since their striking defeat in the November 1 elections, and perhaps the last time they’ll meet before Benjamin Netanyahu moves back in, sending them to the opposition barracks.

No smiles were seen on their faces; it was a group manifestation of frowny and serious expressions, conveying the grave and important topics on the table. But it was also an indication that instead of participating in this gathering of losers, they all would rather have been elsewhere.

Once they were eight, sitting around the Bennett-Lapid cabinet table, divided by ideology and ethnicity but sharing one mutual achievement and goal – replacing Netanyahu in power. A year and a half and a fifth election later, they are a party of five: Naftali Bennett was first to resign, leaving Ayelet Shaked to bury the remnants of Yamina; Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party merged with Gantz’s, and Meretz was wiped out by the electoral threshold, paving the way for Netanyahu’s overwhelming comeback.

The Center-Left’s colossal defeat was shortly followed by the traditional mudslinging blame game; Gantz and Michaeli have been targeting Lapid with direct responsibility for the failure, accusing him of neglecting the mathematics of the bloc in favor of his own party’s growth and achievements. Michaeli and Gantz never acknowledged Lapid’s leadership to begin with, but as long he was the caretaker prime minister, they kept their resentment under cover.

 Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid sits with National Unity Party leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the swearing-in ceremony for the new 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid sits with National Unity Party leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the swearing-in ceremony for the new 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Now that he has led them to the opposition, they are challenging him out in the open. Meanwhile, Yesh Atid’s finger is pointing right back at them, charging Michaeli’s stubborn refusal to form a technical bloc with Meretz as the leading contributor to the Left’s fall, as well as Gantz’s dreams of becoming prime minister instead.

The first sign of no confidence appeared last week when, during President Isaac Herzog’s rounds of consultations with the various parties elected to the Knesset, Lapid received only 28 recommendations out of 56 opposition members. Netanyahu’s consolidated 64-seat majority crowned him in advance with the mandate to form a government and reduced the presidential consultations process to a mere ceremony. While all of Netanyahu’s allies designated him as their favorite premier, most of Lapid’s supposed partners preferred to not name anyone rather than designate him as their leader.

Besides Yesh Atid, only the four members of the Labor Party named Lapid as their candidate for prime minister. Despite their bad blood, Michaeli fulfilled a campaign promise to support Lapid, but she was all alone. Gantz, Liberman, Abbas and Ayman Odeh all declined, each for his own reasons, to endorse Lapid.

According to well-informed sources, Gantz initially considered endorsing Lapid, for the sake of good manners, but when he learned that even Liberman didn’t intend to do so, he immediately changed course.

Liberman is commonly known to be one of Lapid’s closest political allies, but their friendship has soured in the past year, following several fights and frictions in their shared coalition, which continued into the election campaign as well. Yesh Atid strengthened its power and presence among the Russian-speaking electorate, eating into Yisrael Beytenu’s traditional base.

ALL OF these bad vibes entered Lapid’s room on Tuesday afternoon, as the leaders of the future opposition convened to discuss their first urgent steps. But what was missing from the attempted visual show revealed their first flaw: all of the parties were invited to the meeting besides Hadash-Ta’al. Following Liberman’s demand to keep them out of the outgoing coalition’s circle, Odeh and Tibi were kept out of the room and the frame, leaving them fuming and vowing to operate independently.

Twenty-four hours later, Tibi presented his first payback and individually negotiated with the Likud for temporary Knesset posts and committees, leaving Lapid’s people in the dark.

At the same time, Gantz sent Ze’ev Elkin, the parliamentary mastermind he acquired with Gideon Sa’ar, to improve their party’s distribution of positions – behind Lapid’s back. Yesh Atid lashed out at Tibi and Gantz for breaking lines and cooperating with the Likud, prompting Gantz’s confidants to slam back and put down Lapid’s leadership, once again reminding of his failure in the elections.

All in all, the first day of the 25th Knesset presented a fierce and combative opposition – inside itself. “And its only the beginning,” one of the Likudniks was overheard saying.

After his rivals uniquely and unprecedentedly joined forces against Netanyahu, his ultimate victory has left them in shambles. Once again, they are divided between Left and Right, Jews and Arabs, and loaded with hard feelings and personal ego battles, which at this point are at least as harsh as their animosity toward Netanyahu.

Gantz has already declared his autonomous intentions, signaling he will not necessarily abide by Lapid’s directives and discretion. Liberman and Sa’ar have plans to outflank Netanyahu and embarrass him with a right-wing agenda and right-wing legislation, which Yesh Atid, Labor and the Arab parties probably won’t endorse. Abbas, Odeh and Tibi are also likely to explore independent paths to Netanyahu’s coalition, seeking to gain access to budgets and plans for their Arab constituency.

The only strategic goal the members of the opposition appear to agree on is stopping his coalition’s plans for reactionary judicial reforms that can keep Netanyahu out of jail while changing the checks and balances of Israeli democracy forever.

But even if they rise above their bitterness and malice and unite around one common goal, the numbers condemn the opposition to be ineffective.

With a clear-cut, 64-seat majority for the coalition, it’s almost impossible for the opposition to block any of Netanyahu’s far-right government moves or initiatives, let alone undermine his coalition’s stability. And with a chaotic opposition pulling in different directions, Netanyahu will find it easy to divide and conquer the Knesset and inflame their internal hostility to his own advantage.

Earlier this week, a Yesh Atid tweet vowed to fight Netanyahu’s new government “in the Knesset, the squares and the bridges.” Perhaps that implies that Lapid is acknowledging his weakness in the Knesset and plans to lead the opposition from the streets.