Why didn't Israel's opposition try to improve the country? - opinion

Regard for the importance of the long-term view and the sacred nature of serving in the Knesset could have prevented the behavior exhibited by Israel's opposition.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU and Bezalel Smotrich sit alongside each other in the Knesset plenum. Had the opposition – meaning Bibi and Smotrich – behaved in a responsible way, they would have supported legislation that was consistent with their beliefs, says the writer. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU and Bezalel Smotrich sit alongside each other in the Knesset plenum. Had the opposition – meaning Bibi and Smotrich – behaved in a responsible way, they would have supported legislation that was consistent with their beliefs, says the writer.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

For a people with a history measured in thousands of years, why are contemporary Israeli politicians thinking in terms of two years, four years, six months? 

Based on the behavior of the opposition leader in the outgoing government alone, it seems that some of our leaders have lost sight of the long-game for the Jewish people.

Perhaps the meteoric rise from “nothing” to prosperity and technological prowess in only seven decades of our modern state has blurred the meaning of our history and the essence of our peoplehood, both measured in centuries and not Knesset terms. After all, as a wise man once told me in a different context: “Messiah is not coming tomorrow.”

What some of our elected representatives seem to forget is that being in the Knesset is a sacred task, a privilege to play an active part in the ongoing history of the Jewish people. Perhaps the ones who understand that most are the Arab MKs, both those who are trying to destroy Israel from within and those who dread Israel being destroyed from within and turned into another “Lebanon.” The former are behaving like time is on their side.

Regard for the importance of the long view, together with recognition of the sacred nature of serving in the Knesset, should be basic to those who profess to care about the longevity of the Jewish state. That recognition would, perhaps, have prevented the behavior exhibited by the opposition during the first year of the outgoing coalition government.

While the voting public would certainly prefer a government to function for the full length of its four-year term, we find ourselves having to vote on November 1, an election that stands a high chance of leaving us as deadlocked as we were after each of the past four elections. This need not have come to pass. 

Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In fact, had the government not fallen – at least not for just one more year – we may have seen Israeli politics achieve sanity, and politicians may have actually earned their salaries doing the tasks they were hired to do, which is not endless election campaigning.

While many Yamina voters felt Naftali Bennett had betrayed them by keeping his promise of no fifth election at the expense of other promises, it was within his legal right to act as he did. While the thought of an Arab party in the coalition (while not having a cabinet post) was anathema to many on the Right, they later voted with the Joint List on some issues, and it is not unreasonable to assume that there was some coordination between them.

To Bibi’s great chagrin, he was no longer prime minister, acting or interim, and he became leader of the opposition. The task of the opposition in a democratic country is clear. It is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu and Bezalel Smotrich seemed to think, a declaration of war on the newly sworn-in coalition government.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz reported that, in contrast with the hours of handover sessions held by outgoing prime minister Shimon Peres when Netanyahu formed a new coalition, Bibi granted Bennett a mere 30 minutes – “Not a minute more,” Katz wrote. Peres understood, Katz continued, “that there was something greater than his own personal grievance. There was a country that needed to be managed, and a people who needed to stay safe. If he could help a new prime minister succeed in his job, Peres would be there, ignoring the potential political price.”

According to Times of Israel, Bibi met with opposition leaders (including the Joint List) immediately after his half-hour perfunctory handover, demanding of them “discipline and cohesion in order to make life harder on the coalition and ‘rescue the people and State of Israel’... [from a government] based on ‘fraud, hate and power-seeking.’”

As part of making it harder on the coalition, the Likud boycotted committee meetings at which the legislative activities that form a major part of both coalition and opposition Knesset members’ activities take place. This means that they willfully excluded themselves from having been able to have had any impact on laws that were before the Knesset.

Even The New York Times understood Bibi’s intention when they aptly titled one of their articles “Netanyahu’s Plan to Regain Power in Israel: Vote against His Views.”

What is the role of the opposition?

IN LIGHT of this, I asked Matthew Shugart, a retired American award-winning political scientist specializing in electoral and party systems, about the opposition’s role in the running of the country. He wrote:

“Oppositions generally cooperate on bills that advance policy goals they share, in order to try to claim credit at the next election for ‘improving’ measures the government introduced. And because, politics aside, they often have genuine consensus on what problems need to be addressed, even though if they were in power they might set the agenda towards a different specific solution.”

“Oppositions generally cooperate on bills that advance policy goals they share, in order to try to claim credit at the next election for ‘improving’ measures the government introduced. And because, politics aside, they often have genuine consensus on what problems need to be addressed, even though if they were in power they might set the agenda towards a different specific solution.”

Matthew Shugart

I also asked if it is normal for an opposition to act as they did under the Bennett prime ministership. He responded:

“I would say it is not ‘normal’ for oppositions refusing to even bargain when the policy being debated is something that they actually favor and would attempt to pass if in power.

Bibi’s behavior strikes me as unusual and anti-institutional. Among the worst things was the refusal to take security briefings with the prime minister, but refusing to move out of the residence in a timely fashion was also quite bad. The boycotting of legislative committees is also very unusual – more like something I’d expect in an unstable democracy than in Israel. (And to be clear, I consider Israel among the stable democracies.)

Had the opposition – meaning Bibi and Smotrich – behaved in a responsible way, they would have supported legislation that was consistent with their beliefs. For example, they would not have threatened to oppose the settlement regulation law, which has been passed every five years without fanfare, and whose failure to pass, had Bennett not stepped down, would have had dire consequences for their very own voters.

They would have fought for improvements to bills brought before the Knesset by the government, making sure that voices outside the coalition were heeded, for that is exactly what happens in the Knesset committees the opposition boycotted. Like in all governments, coalition and opposition members would have continued to co-produce bills that had nothing to do with left-wing or right-wing orientation and that crossed sectorial boundaries in many cases.

There is no opposition anywhere in the world that is not disappointed they are not forming the government in the current term of office. Had the opposition accepted its temporary fate and worked toward helping the country achieve order from chaos, as Bennett said he set out to accomplish, it could have been part of the solution rather than perpetuating the problem. This would not have been solely a Bennett achievement.

The opposition could have claimed credit for much. They could have publicized bills they would have initiated and the ways they fought to improve legislation brought forward by the government. Had they decided, instead of bashing everything the government did, to intelligently discuss the pros and cons of various government actions, they would have been a model of responsible opposition behavior.

Only one more year was required to secure the changes necessary for remediating the budgetary and some of the other sources of chaos. The opposition could have been part of that success. That would have given many of the public a reason to vote for them in future.

Instead they brought us to another election and more wasted money and no end in sight.

One’s character is often demonstrated more by how one comports oneself after failure than after success. Instead of Bibi and Smotrich showing us why we should vote for either of them, the public is left voting for the party that seems to be the least bad choice.

Even if Bibi is able to put together a coalition after November 1, it will not heal the rifts and the bad taste left after their behavior this past year. Katz lamented that Netanyahu did not heed Peres’s example: “The country comes first, the party comes second and only then you.”

Israel needs leaders who see the longevity of the Jewish state far into the future, leaders who know how to put their shoulders to the wheel and help push the nation in the right direction under a wide variety of circumstances.

Leaders who know that together we stand or together we fall. This year can be viewed as a test case. And the opposition failed the test fate had presented them.

Living in Israel since 1976, the writer is a retired family therapist who has embarked upon a career in journalism.