Behind you, Bibi!

The new government’s opposition seems hapless, but a visionary leader can turn its diverse elements into a viable political alternative

Defense Minister Benny Gantz talks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi walks by at a cabinet meeting on June 7 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz talks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi walks by at a cabinet meeting on June 7
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

When a citizen is fearful – that’s slavery; and when a government is fearful – that’s freedom, observed opposition head Menachem Begin in 1963. 
Having taken nearly three decades to reach power, Begin’s insights, tactics, and aftermath as “Mister Opposition” now come to mind as his Likud’s current leaders dismiss their own opposition much the way Begin’s was scorned in its time as pompous, hollow, and standing no chance to ever reach power. 
The Likud’s conceit is understandable. Having endured a 500-day political deadlock’s three elections, and then seen their party restore its status as Israel’s political hegemon – many Likud leaders and activists believe no political force can unseat them. 
This new confidence is fed by the current political situation’s two main features: On the personal level, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political dominance is unrivaled, and on the partisan level, the breakup of Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White in the wake of his pact with Netanyahu has suddenly made Likud more than twice as big as the second-largest Knesset faction. 
Coupled with opinion polls’ indication that the public has been generally satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, some pundits believe Netanyahu will seek an early election sometime next year. 
Considering the opposition he has come to face, goes this thinking, Netanyahu can make Likud leap from its current 36 seats – the most Netanyahu won in his eight prime-ministerial runs – to the symbolic 40-MK barrier, which the Likud has not crossed in 32 years. 
The impression Netanyahu the person and Likud the party have no effective opposition is further bolstered by the near-disappearance of Likud’s historic nemesis, the Labor Party. 
Having already dwindled in this century’s first five elections to fewer than 20 lawmakers, the party that last century won repeatedly more than 40 seats, and in two cases also more than 50, is now down to a mere three MKs. 
With Labor’s relic split between one pair – Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli – who joined Netanyahu’s cabinet, and its remaining MK, Merav Michaeli, who preferred the opposition, many assume that Likud, for the first time in its history, effectively faces no opposition. 
That impression is unfounded. 
THE NEW opposition is, on the face of it, a hodgepodge of infusible parts, ranging from anti-Zionist Islamists to ultra-nationalist Jews, all spearheaded by the Yesh Atid-Telem faction which, besides representing less than 14% of the electorate, is an ad-hoc party with no institutions or branches.   
Such a reading of the new opposition’s makeup would be wrong, first of all technically, since in terms of the future one must include in it Gantz, his faction, and, most importantly, their voters. 
Unlike what some of his opponents have been alleging after he bolted the opposition, Gantz’s entry into Netanyahu’s coalition has been backed by 56 percent of the 1.22 million Israelis who voted Blue and White, according to a Channel 12 poll published March 27. Then again, those voters do not expect Gantz’s ministers to follow Netanyahu’s lead, and they already are making it plain they indeed will not. 
Most notably, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn has installed Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit as the interim state attorney, despite the war Likud leaders have waged on the man who decided to prosecute Netanyahu. 
Similarly, four days after becoming culture minister, Blue and White’s Chili Troper met singer Aviv Gefen in order to hear from him about the plight of the artistic community in the wake of the pandemic. The underlying message was that, unlike his predecessor Miri Regev, whose hollers at the artistic community were both deafening and strategic, her successor is out to harmonize with the artistic community and serve it. 
Such contrarian attitudes will animate the new government’s work, as Blue and White labors to show that despite its partnership with Likud it is very different from it. Indeed, as events will unfold Blue and White’s mental proximity to the opposition will become plain. 
For instance, if Netanyahu tries to annex parts of the West Bank in upcoming months, as he says he will, Blue and White can be expected to be on this issue closer to Yesh Atid than to the Likud. Moreover, on social issues Blue and White includes socialists who will emerge as thorns in Netanyahu’s economic side.  
Already, Agriculture Minister Alon Shuster, is struggling against the treasury’s effort to impose foreign competition on the local dairy food industry. These early beginnings follow Blue and White’s little noticed, but formal, pact with the Labor Party, which down the road may well mature into a full merger. 
In fact, the proximity between Labor and Blue and White has deep sociological roots, and so do the new opposition’s disparate elements. 
BLUE AND WHITE’S leaders are mostly products of Israel’s historic, Labor-led establishment. Benny Gantz and his second-in-command, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi grew up in farming communities knows as moshavim, the former in Kfar Ahim north of Ashkelon, and the latter in Hagor, outside Kfar Saba. That milieu voted Labor overwhelmingly for decades. Gantz’s late father, Nahum, was also an executive in the Moshavim Movement, when it was a pillar of the Labor Party. 
Blue and White’s number three, Nissenkorn, served as chairman of the Histadrut labor federation. The party’s number four, Tropper, is the son of Daniel Troper, who in 1988 co-founded Meimad, the modern-Orthodox movement that preached land for peace and ultimately ran on a joint ticket with Labor. Shuster is a lifelong member of Kibbutz Miflasim, outside the Gaza Strip. 
Behind all these lurks a clearly identifiable electorate that never voted Likud, and is now appalled by Netanyahu’s assault on the judiciary, even while backing the deal to enter his government. 
Having said this, the new opposition’s potential lies not in the center-left elements that Netanyahu coopted, but in the right-wing elements he shunned. 
THE THIRTEENTH Likud-led government is the first ever to exclude the nominal party of religious-Zionism. 
What now is called Yamina and previously was Bayit Yehudi, was originally the National Religious Party, which since Israel’s establishment garnered up to one-tenth of the electorate. The NRP’s shift in 1977 from Labor’s fold to Likud’s was a major cause of Israeli politics’ historic journey from left to right. 
Netanyahu’s abandonment of Yamina was driven by his personal issues with its charismatic leaders, former defense minister Naftali Bennett and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, whose strained relations with the prime minister hark back to their early days as members of his personal staff. 
On a non-personal level, Netanyahu apparently calculated that the modern-Orthodox electorate has been steadily abandoning its historic party, a trend that is reflected in modern-Orthodox politicians’ ubiquity elsewhere in the political system. 
In the current government, for instance, there are five modern-Orthodox ministers: Tropper and Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen of Blue and White, and Likud’s Yuli Edelstein (health minister), Ze’ev Elkin (higher and secondary education minister and water resources minister), and Tzipi Hotovely (settlements minister) –  although the latter has been appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the UK, and is due to be replaced by Tzachi Hanegbi. This is beside Jerusalem Affairs Minister Rafi Peretz, who left Yamina, and prominent opposition member Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid. 
Even so, a critical mass of modern-Orthodox voters remains loyal to their historic party, and moreover: those who vote for secular parties still appreciate Bennett, and may resent his humiliation. 
Back in 1977, the NRP’s fateful defection was preceded by its ejection by Yitzhak Rabin from his coalition, following its protestation of a greeting ceremony for the IAF’s first F-16s that desecrated the Sabbath. For Labor, the rift with religious-Zionism proved fatal. 
Netanyahu’s provocation of modern-Orthodoxy’s politicians, despite its different setting and scale, might still serve Likud’s rivals, much the way Rabin’s contributed to Labor’ downfall. 
NO LESS ominously, Netanyahu has also lost Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, and with him a sizable Russian-speaking electorate. 
The former defense minister, who once was Netanyahu’s closest confidante, has caused the political paralysis that followed the general election of April 2019. The nationalist-secular Liberman’s refusal to return to a right-wing coalition, citing its concessions to ultra-Orthodoxy and demanding a government with Blue and White instead – robbed Likud of the ability to assemble what it saw as its natural coalition.  
The result is that Liberman is now seen in Likud not as an adversary, but as a traitor. Prospects of him and Netanyahu mending walls are not even slim. Yes, like modern-Orthodoxy, much of the Russian-speaking electorate no longer votes for its sectarian party. Then again, many still do, and they, like Bennett’s electorate, were historically part of Likud’s orbit. 
It follows, then, that Netanyahu has come to face an opposition where modern-Orthodox and Russian-speaking voters meet a critical mass of Labor’s historic electorate. 
In the middle of this already potent triangle sprawls the predominantly upper-middle class electorate represented by Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who now formally bears the title, “head of the opposition.” 
Begin’s unseating of Labor began in 1965 when he created an alliance with the Liberal Party which, like today’s Yesh Atid, represented an educated, affluent, secular and urban constituency. Coupled with his steady luring of the working class and the subsequent addition to his orbit of modern-Orthodoxy, it was with that rainbow coalition that he ultimately doomed Labor’s 30-year hegemony. 
The new opposition’s social variety allows the emergence of such a political orchestra, provided, of course, that it finds a political maestro on the scale of Menachem Begin.