The Jerusalem Post
The opposition and contrary forces
Ihave seen many governments come and go in more than 40 years as an Israeli voter, but I have never seen a new government quite like this – nor witnessed one leave with such bad grace.
I have even seen Benjamin Netanyahu twice concede electoral defeat in previous decades. I covered the Likud in 1999 and remember how on election night he admitted he had lost in the direct elections to Ehud Barak, and announced he was taking a timeout from politics, basically handing the reins of the party to Ariel Sharon.
Given the tumultuous (brief) term of Barak (who withdrew the IDF from Lebanon overnight, and was willing to hand huge chunks of Jerusalem to the Palestinians) and Sharon’s transfiguration into the head of Kadima and architect of the Gaza disengagement, it’s understandable that Netanyahu does not trust anyone else in the driver’s seat. (Not everything has to do with his personal legal challenges.)
Still, this week, it happened again. After 12 years in office, the politician nicknamed The Magician for his uncanny ability to pull a trick out of his hat and survive when all seemed lost, was forced to shake the hand of Naftali Bennett and move over to the Knesset seat reserved for the leader of the opposition.
The Knesset vote of confidence in the new government passed by the narrowest of margins, 60 to 59 with one abstention by a Coalition member from Ra’am (the United Arab List). It was not a festive affair. Netanyahu’s speech was summed up as “We’ll be back” – something he said in 1999 as well.
Then, as now, he pointed out that he was leaving with the country stronger than it was when he came to power. Even Netanyahu’s many detractors admit that he has had some major
successes, including getting the US to move its embassy to Jerusalem, the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements with four Arab states, and his strategic thinking that allowed Israel to receive the anti-COVID vaccinations early on and beat the pandemic.
Bennett’s address was constantly interrupted by hecklers so that Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid made a point of abandoning his speech and instead, declared that it was a pity his 86-year-old mother, who had come all the way to Jerusalem, could not see the smooth transition of government.
Lapid’s speech was perfect for the social media age, but it rang false to those of us with longer political memories. Shulamit Lapid, a respected
novelist, is not exactly a stranger to the dirtier side of politics: Tommy Lapid, her late husband, Yair’s beloved father, was famous for his raised tones and interruptions both as a TV political panelist and later as a parliamentarian and minister as head of the Shinui party. And Yair Lapid, too, when his plans were frustrated in April 2019 – not so long ago – promised or threatened the Likud: “We in the opposition will make your life miserable. We are going to turn the Knesset into a battlefield.”
At the time, I pointed out that no one likes sore losers and there are better ways of protecting democratic principles than by turning parliament into a combat zone. The job of the opposition isn’t to make the government
miserable, but to provide checks and balances. It’s an important function.
A major part of the problem is the electoral system. As a political commentator noted this week, in the US, after the presidential elections – whether you’re happy with the results, or not – you can assume that the new president will be in power for at least four years (and the vice president will take over if that’s not possible for some reason) whereas in Israel, the start of a new government’s tenure also signals the beginning of the next election cycle and attempts to remove it as soon as possible.
In the case of the current government, there will be no grace period. The cabinet, comprised of ministers from eight very different parties, is no one’s dream team. Disparate and desperate, they were united by one thing: The desire to topple Netanyahu. But the “Just not Bibi” philosophy will take them only so far – especially given that the opposition includes the 30-member Likud. True, the Likud itself is not united, and Nir Barkat last week fired the opening shots of his campaign for party leadership. Talk about a fighting opposition.
On the other hand, with parties ranging from Yamina and New Hope on the Right, Yesh Atid and Blue and White in the Center, Labor and Meretz on the Left and far Left and the hard to define Yisrael Beytenu and the United Arab List, the coalition is likely to find it opposes itself on many topics. It will be a struggle to pass laws and govern. There is likely to be political paralysis – a stalemate with the emphasis more on the “stale” than the “mate.”
ALTHOUGH ALMOST all Hebrew-speakers refer to the coalition and opposition by their Latin-based terms – coalitzia and oppositzia – the Hebrew Language Academy has blueand-white terms – yahda and negda (from the roots of “together” and “against”). The HLA would also like the public to use the word “yoshra” for “integrity,” but it is a lost battle. Integrity, itself, is scarce under the current circumstances. The manner in which Bennett with just a seven-member faction, and having broken his campaign promise not to sit in a government with the United Arab List, is now prime minister of a coalition that includes the Islamist party – at least first in the rotation with Lapid – has left even many of his voters stunned.
It will be hard to reform the system when those who beat it are now in power. There is much talk of limiting the number of consecutive terms or years the prime minister can serve. Ultimately, it is not the system that needs changing but the political culture. After all, it is the nature of democracy to let the people have their say and then say “no” to the wishes of a large proportion of them.
There is no real incentive for stability in Israeli politics. As I have suggested before, one way to help would be to establish a shadow government. Very few MKs in the past made the successful transition from power to the back benches to continue to work hard as an “ordinary” MK.
It is understandably hard for someone who has been addressed as “minister” to go back to being a humble(d) MK. But these parliamentarians need to do what they were elected to do: listen to the people and draw up legislation. Admittedly, it is not easy for them to be literally shadows of their former selves, but it would provide them with a sense of purpose and a way to keep their names in the spotlight.
The public, too, has a role: Instead of asking how to bring down each government the moment it is elected, people need to ask themselves the price of these constant changes. When ministers know they have probably got only two years in office, they do not plan very far ahead. It’s tempting to cut as many corners and red ribbons as possible.
There is no lack of socioeconomic and environmental issues that need tackling along with the security and diplomatic challenges. Former Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, a superb parliamentarian during her time in the Knesset, noted this week on the Reshet Bet radio show she co-hosts with former Shas MK Yigal Guetta, the opposition and coalition have to work together to pass significant legislation.
In 1959, 18 years before he would finally become prime minister, Menachem Begin told David Ben-Gurion’s government: “Without an opposition, there is no democracy.” As Likud MKs and other former coalition members move to the backbenches, it is fitting to let Begin have the last – wise – words.