Israel’s weak opposition

In Israel there are several reasons why the opposition is particularly weak.

Yair Lapid (photo credit: ELAD GUTMAN)
Yair Lapid
(photo credit: ELAD GUTMAN)
Since the beginning of 2019 there have been growing complaints that Israel’s parliamentary opposition is being deliberately weakened and made irrelevant by the government – be it three successive transition governments, or the current Emergency Government – as part of the general weakening of the Israeli democratic system.
While I am among those who believe that the Israeli democracy as a liberal democracy – one which is based on the rule of the majority on the one hand, and on the protection of human, civil and minority rights on the other – is in the process of decline, inter alia because of ideological trends in the Likud and in the national religious camp, it must be admitted that the opposition in Israel was always relatively weak, and remains so today.
The background to this weakness is dual. On the one hand, in all parliamentary systems such as that prevalent in Israel, the opposition is at a disadvantage because by definition the government is almost always enjoys a parliamentary majority (minority governments are rare), and the imposition of coalition voting discipline is considered legitimate.
An opposition made up of a single parliamentary group is in a better position than an opposition that is divided into several parliamentary groups, but by definition the opposition is almost invariably a minority, and in all matters where the majority prevails, has few opportunities to defeat the government – even on the tactical level.
In Israel there are several reasons why the opposition is particularly weak.
The first is that from the very beginning (1949, when the first Knesset was elected) the parliamentary system was constructed by the MAPAI establishment to prevent effective parliamentary scrutiny of the government, inter alia by means of establishing the Knesset permanent committees so that they do not overlap with the government ministries.
From the very beginning, delegitimization of certain opposition parties by the government was common practice. Thus, no one questioned the legitimacy of prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s statement, when he formed Israel’s first government, that all parties were eligible except for “Herut and MAKI” – i.e. Menahem Begin’s party, and the Israel Communist Party. Today Benjamin Netanyahu – like all other potential prime ministers – excludes the United (Arab) List. Netanyahu also excludes “the Left,” namely, Meretz.
What makes the status of the opposition in Israel even more precarious is the fact that it is invariably made up of a combination of parliamentary groups that have almost nothing in common except for the fact that they are not members in the government coalition. Today’s opposition is an extreme example of this, and includes two right-wing parliamentary groups (Yamina and Yisrael Beytenu), one center parliamentary group (Yesh Atid-Telem), one left-wing parliamentary group (Meretz), and the United List, which agree on only a single issue: opposition to Netanyahu personally.
There are quite a few parliamentary tools that the Opposition can use to confront the government in the plenum, of which the main ones are questions to ministers and the prime minister, motions for the agenda, motions of no confidence in the government, and filibusters, but beyond being a nuisance to the government, they are not very effective. The Knesset committees have the power to question the government and its representatives, but since almost all these committees are chaired by MKs from the coalition, the opposition has very limited influence on these committees’ agendas.
In the 20th Knesset, when the Economic Affairs Committee was chaired by Eitan Cabel (Labor), who decided to hold hearings on the government’s highly problematic natural gas outline, Cabel managed to get Netanyahu to turn up at one of the committee’s meetings, but couldn’t get him to answer most of the pertinent questions posed to him. In fact, the only way the opposition managed to get any changes in the natural gas outline, was after several of its representatives joined in petitioning the High Court of Justice.
IN THE past, the two main committees traditionally left in the hands of the opposition were the State Control Committee and the Economic Affairs Committee, but in the current Knesset, the latter was kept in the hands of the coalition, while the chairman of the coalition, MK Miki Zohar (Likud), keeps bullying the chairman of the former – MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), and recently threatened to have him removed because Shelah announced his intention to hold a deliberation in his committee on the Submarines Affair (concerning Netanyahu’s alleged involvement in the financial irregularities around Israel’s purchase of submarines and other naval vessels from the German company Thyssenkrupp).
Following the three inconclusive successive elections to the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Knessets, after which three transition governments governed, the Knesset went into almost complete limbo, and most of its activities were simply stopped, leaving the opposition almost totally unemployed. However, after the last of the three elections, a transition government led by Netanyahu continued to govern (and inter alia to manage the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic), though there was a majority opposed to it – but one unable to form an alternative government, and thus the opposition was able to do but one thing: prevent Netanyahu from forming a government (until Blue and White split, and Benny Gantz joined a coalition with Netanyahu).
Undoubtedly, the situation that prevailed in the last year and a half was highly irregular, and one that did not do well by the opposition, or by the Israeli democracy in general, for that matter. However, if we follow the history of the Israeli opposition from the time of the first Knesset, the opposition very rarely flourished, except when the coalition was divided on a certain issue (for example, the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, the Oslo Accords in 1993, and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005) and then the opposition (or part of the opposition) could play a determinant role, by supporting the position of the prime minister, against parts of his coalition.
Throughout the history of the Knesset, the government’s majority has done its best to keep the opposition at bay. The style in which this has been done has been largely a function of the character of those running the game on behalf of the coalition: especially the Knesset speaker and the chairman of the coalition. For example, in the 20th Knesset, chairman of the coalition David Bitan (Likud) was inclined to be conciliatory toward and cooperative with the opposition, while the current chairman of the coalition, Miki Zohar, is inclined to be nasty and even insulting.
It is difficult to predict how things will develop in the foreseeable future. Though the current opposition is, as we have seen, divided to the extreme, the leaders of its various components are all forceful personalities, who do not mince words, and will not bow easily to diktats by the coalition.
It is no secret that Netanyahu feels deep contempt for all those who oppose him, and especially the official parliamentary opposition. Whether calmer relations will return to prevail between coalition and opposition after the Netanyahu era will come to an end is difficult to predict, since we do not know who and what will replace him.