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Campaign advertisements for Benny Gantz, chairman of the Blue and White party outside a polling station in Jerusalem, April 9, 2019.(Photo by: BEN BRESKY)
Center Field: Needed, an effective Blue and White opposition
By GIL TROY
04/23/2019
How does a centrist party reach out to the Right – where it failed to find voters – against an opponent skilled at demonizing any critic as a traitor from the Left?
If the duty of the opposition is to oppose, how can Israel’s new opposition oppose intelligently, constructively and strategically?
Clearly, hopes of a centrist super-coalition between Likud and Blue and White finally tackling some major problems, free of minor party blackmail, were as realistic as hopes that Benjamin Netanyahu would resign gracefully or that even one Likudnik would denounce Bibi’s odious alliance with Kahanist bigots. Now, Blue and White needs a more realistic Plan B. This party of political amateurs must learn something that most political professionals haven’t figured out: how to use the Knesset to give Israel what it’s rarely had – a smart, effective opposition.

Such a challenge would intimidate any party. Consider how many opposition leaders Bibi Netanyahu has mowed over effortlessly. Making it harder, Blue and White – love ‘em or hate ‘em – is a cobbled-together coalition headed by a shotgun polygamous marriage of prima donnas – which is what chiefs of staff and public intellectuals need to be in order to advance as far as Benny Gantz, Bogie Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid have in their lives.

Finally, perhaps most daunting: How does a centrist party reach out to the Right – where it failed to find voters – against an opponent skilled at demonizing any critic as a traitor from the Left?

It’s not just that Netanyahu seems to hold all the cards, or that he reshuffles the deck easily and cleverly at will. It’s that a sufficient number of Israeli voters allow him to keep changing the very card game itself, and the rules he forces everyone else to follow.

A loyal opposition must be a party of jugglers, of nimble game-players comfortable with grays instead of black and white. The media world and Twitterdumb want rivals to be “The Party of No,” fighting constantly and shrieking wildly. But that won’t work when most Israelis just said “yes” to Netanyahu’s economic policies and foreign strategies.

Lapid’s temper tantrum – threatening that Blue and White will embitter the lives of the Likud – was doubly ridiculous. First, the Blue-and-whiters just don’t look that tough. It was like an American professor challenging a KGB agent in the old Soviet Union – who’s going to mug whom? Likudniks are skilled street-fighters; centrists by definition are barn-builders not barn-burners. So, tactically, the trick is to get the demagogues to look like thugs, not to try looking strong by bullying the bullies, only to get bullied by them.

Strategically, too, Lapid miscalculated. He seemed to be disrespecting the Israeli voter, rejecting the verdict the election had just rendered. Israelis didn’t vote for gridlock and head-butting. They said, they’d rather an imperfect leader who gets things done than trust inexperienced politicians who might not be effective. Blue and White now must show what needs to be done to improve, not just constantly disapprove.

PERHAPS IT’S time to create a shadow cabinet – designating the four main leaders of Blue and White as the leading voices on four key issues. Gantz should wake up every day asking the big picture questions: “Where did Bibi go wrong yesterday?” and “Where does Israel need to go tomorrow?”  He needs to refine his voice and establish his credibility as a leader who can handle the chaos and complexity of Israeli politics while developing some vision for the country. He needs to criticize when necessary, compliment when justified, and look ahead always.

Part of the reason Netanyahu keeps winning is that many Israelis lack confidence in anyone else; they are not yet ready for the day after Bibi. Gantz has the platform to start shaping the world of the next prime minister, while maneuvering cleverly to help end this current era of Bibi-King-of-Israel.

As a former defense minister, Ya’alon should target the complex challenges Israel faces in handling Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, chaos in Syria, evil Islamists in Iran, and ineffectual enemies in the PA. Without spilling state secrets or undermining confidence in our army or our leaders, Ya’alon should articulate strategies that will propel Israel forward, trying to solve some of our security problems instead of just managing them. Israel has been in a holding pattern for too long. If Blue and White has creative solutions, start articulating and championing them.

Of course, such creativity is needed on the domestic front, too. Ashkenazi developed quite a following during the campaign. Yair Lapid has now been in politics for nearly a decade, including a stint as Finance Minister. They should split the domestic portfolio and show that someone, somewhere, is thinking creatively, intelligently, constructively about where Israel needs to go – not only how to extend the prime minister’s lengthy tenure.

During the campaign, voters kept asking, “What does Blue and White stand for beyond not being Bibi?” Blue-and-whiters kept insisting, “We have lots of ideas.” On Election Day, most Israeli voters showed that they remained skeptical – even as 1,125,881 voters – 26.13% of the total – said, “Let’s give these rookies a chance.”

True, they didn’t get a chance to govern, but as a strong opposition party Blue and White has a chance to lead. What it does with this opportunity will shape the fate of these four individuals and their cobbled-together coalition. It could also shape the fate of Israel and the Jewish people. This loyal opposition has to support patriotically when necessary and criticize constructively whenever possible, showing that it knows how to take a punch, swing for the fences, and earn street cred for the next election campaign, which, essentially, has already begun!

The writer was named one of Algemeiner’s top 100 people ‘positively influencing Jewish life.’ He is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea (Jewish Publication Society), a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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