An Opposition In Search Of A Brand


Tel Aviv — It’s becoming a ritual after every Israeli election: After the votes are counted, and the dimension of another political victory by Benjamin Netanyahu comes into focus, the Monday-morning quarterbacking begins for the center-left opposition.

Why did they lose a fourth consecutive time? With three ex-chiefs of staff leading the centrist Blue and White party, how did it lose to a prime minister facing three separate indictments?

How did the Labor party, which led Israel for three decades, collapse into an afterthought? Why did Arab voting sink to a historic low four years after an Arab party became the third largest in the Knesset?

And what are the prospects for cooperation between the opposition’s disparate components to form a Knesset counterbalance to Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties?

On the one hand, Blue and White, a party that came into being just a few weeks before the election, won slightly more than a quarter of the votes. It will control 35 of the 120 parliamentary seats. Its chairman, Benny Gantz, will be the most powerful opposition leader in several decades. It will lead an opposition with some 55 of the parliament’s 120 seats.

On the other hand, the party is composed of politicians with disparate ideologies, many of whom, like Gantz, are political neophytes.

“Blue and White had a phenomenal success. A party that large is a threat to Netanyahu and Likud. They are the main opposition party, and they could build up momentum,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American pollster and political strategist.

“But the first challenge for them is to stay together as a party. Netanyahu has to make sure they are divided. Gantz is totally untested with rookie lawmakers. Even if they had won, Blue and White is like a team of college football stars that never played in the NFL: We’ll see how they respond.”

Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, said that Blue and White achieved part of its goals: “The generals did their job.” It succeeded in peeling away some right-wing swing voters — worth about three parliamentary seats, by his estimates — from the center-right bloc.

However, Rynhold also mentioned that Gantz and others in the party still have yet to make the transition from civil servant to politician. Yair Lapid, a former finance minister who headed centrist Yesh Atid before merging with Gantz, has some political savvy, he said.

“I don’t think the opposition will have a clear sense of how to challenge Netanyahu. … Their careers have been about, ‘How do we deliver, not, ‘How do we win support?’ It’s a very different modus operandi.”

Because Blue and White has several lawmakers from the center-right, it’s unlikely to make its mark with an alternative diplomatic path toward peace with the Palestinians. Indeed, Moshe Yaalon, an ex-Defense Minister under Netanyahu, believes there is no immediate diplomatic solution to the conflict. So, after running a vague campaign where it’s main political banner was opposing Netanyahu, it’s an open question how the party will brand itself in the upcoming parliament.

“We talked a lot about institutionalism, indictments and corruption. We won’t be quiet,” said Yoaz Hendel, a former aide to Netanyahu and an MK elect for Blue and White. “We are going to criticize a government with different leaders with indictments against them. We are going to say it loud and clear, ‘We are united by the deep understanding that Israel should look different: It should [aspire to achieve] anti-tribalism and treat differences inside of Israel not as a political tool but a problem [that needs solving].”

Analysts have predicted that the opposition will focus on efforts to protect the Supreme Court from coalition legislation eroding its powers, and to prevent Netanyahu from serving if he is indicted.

“The only issue really setting Kahol Lavan [Blue and White] apart from the right wing is its support for the legal system, in the face of the governing coalition’s campaign to curtail the power of the Supreme Court and shield Netanyahu himself from the criminal indictments he faces,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz.

“To stick together and serve as an effective opposition, Kahol Lavan will need to position itself as a pro-democracy and anti-corruption platform. It won’t be simple, since Israelis are used to seeing Likud’s main rival as being ‘left-wing’ and ‘pro-peace.’”

Many in the opposition’s decimated left wing believe that in order to reclaim their political voice, parties like Labor will have to re-examine their efforts to woo centrist voters instead of focusing on Israeli policy in the West Bank. They also need to formulate a way to more effectively cooperate with Arab parties, which the Likud delegitimized and Blue and White ignored, analysts said.

“Everyone understands that something has to change, and in a very substantial way. … The center is a fiction that doesn’t exist. Lots of people from Labor and Meretz voted for Blue and White, because they were in the mindset of ‘anyone but Bibi,’” said Shabtai Bendet, a Peace Now activist.

“You can’t built an alternative without the Arabs. There’s no way to avoid this. And if Netanyahu incites against Arab parties, you can’t be silent.”

Arab turnout sank to 49.1 percent in the current elections, down from 63.5 percent in the previous election. The number of Arab MKs will drop from 17 to 12, and the representation of the Arab parties will retreat from 13 to 10. Experts said the drop was because of Likud’s efforts to delegitimize the Arab parties, the cold shoulder from Blue and White and frustration with Arab parties that their unified party disintegrated into two.

“We are a young community that is the only one that provides a demographic counterbalance to the national religious and charedim, and we have an interest in strengthening democracy,” tweeted Thair Abu Ras, a doctoral student in government at the University of Maryland. “The problem with the Jewish Left is that it doesn’t even try to talk to us.”

Liat Schlesinger, director general of Israel’s leftist Molad center, said the elections should provide some hope for the left opposition. She insisted that they showed the pro-settler constituency accounts for less than 10 percent of the vote, and supporters of liberal democracy account for half of the public.

The opposition can’t win by just being an alternative to Netanyahu and being anti-corruption.

“We need to sharpen ideas and messages, and build institutions, and work on our ideas and research, and build a political identity that is real. We can’t think short term,” she said.

“You can’t be ashamed of who you are, and speak in different languages, attack your voters and be surprised when you lose. We should have won these elections.”