Calling for stronger political center, Lapid and Gantz warn against fringe lawmakers

Yesh Atid head nods to a future coalition government that would include a post-Netanyahu Likud party, as National Unity leader says Israelis are ‘prisoners of extremists’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaks at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society, hosted in Jerusalem by Israel Democracy Institute, May 31, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaks at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society, hosted in Jerusalem by Israel Democracy Institute, May 31, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leaders on Wednesday said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition and its plan to block judicial checks on political power are weakening Israel’s economic engines and national resilience, and called instead for a broad, centrist coalition.

“The attack on democracy stems from the fact that the lawfully elected Israeli government has been infiltrated by fringe extremists who want to replace the national-liberal model with a nationalist and religious model,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said at a conference hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute.

“If Israel is not a democracy, it will be poor, militarily weak, isolated in the world. In the longer term, if Israel is not a democracy, it will not exist,” the Yesh Atid party head added.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz also addressed the Jerusalem conference, saying that Israelis are “prisoners of extremists.”

“In recent years, the center has been marginalized,” he said. “This is what enables extortion and damage to the economy, this is what brings extremist and messianic ideas of harming democracy, this is what provokes division. So our mission is for the center to lead and contain the extremes.”

Lapid and Gantz have led the political fight against Netanyahu’s government, which retook power in December. In talks hosted at the President’s Residence, their opposition parties are currently negotiating with the coalition in the hope of reaching a compromise on changes to the judiciary.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society, hosted in Jerusalem by Israel Democracy Institute, May 31, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The two are facing increasing pressure to quit the talks, amid criticism that Netanyahu and his coalition are still prepared to move forward with unilateral changes. Internal pressure within the coalition is mounting on Netanyahu to radically shake up the judiciary, after he paused the legislative push in late March amid unprecedented mass protests.

In comments directed toward Netanyahu’s Likud party, Lapid claimed its leadership “faces a historic choice” at the “not far-off” moment when Likud will part ways with Netanyahu, its leader of more than two decades.

“At this moment, it needs to know that it will find an outstretched hand and an open heart with us,” Lapid said, encouraging Likud to return to a centrist alliance with Yesh Atid, its one-time partner before relations soured between Lapid and Netanyahu.

Lapid said the majority of Israelis are “national liberal” and “agree on 75% of the issues,” and that if Likud, Yesh Atid, and Gantz’s parties had formed a coalition in November, it would have clinched a healthy majority of 68 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

“Even in the current Knesset – which is the most extreme Knesset in the history of the state – Likud, Yesh Atid and National Unity together number 68 seats. If you add Yisrael Beytenu and the Labor party,” two opposition parties that have in the past partnered with Likud, “we reach 76 seats.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s current coalition of right-wing Likud, three far-right parties, and two ultra-Orthodox partners numbers 64 seats.

Lapid said his proposed centrist alternative is “the government of the sane majority that the State of Israel needs,” and blamed Likud’s leadership for undergoing a “dramatic change” that led the Knesset’s largest party to prop up and then ally with far-right parties.

In the past two elections, Netanyahu helped stitch together election slate alliances between three far-right parties, as part of a strategy to prevent wasted votes for his coalition should they be cast for parties too small to pass the four-seat electoral threshold.

“For complex reasons — some ideological, some personal — Likud leaders turned their backs on the national-liberal camp. Likud has teamed up with the religious and messianic parties and turned them into what it calls ‘natural partners.’ What’s natural about it?” Lapid said.

“The great Israeli rift we face did not begin on the street. It began in the political sphere,” Lapid added.

Echoing Lapid, Gantz said, “If we are not a democracy, the economy will weaken, we will not be able to invest in infrastructure and various sectors, we will not be able to realize national fairness. This will come at the expense of addressing the cost of living, and the enormous challenges we have in security and national security.”

Last week, Israel passed a two-year, trillion shekel budget, that included funding for sectoral and political interests.

“Fairness,” Gantz said, “means the distribution of resources based on needs rather than political power.”

Gantz also reiterated, like Lapid, that judicial independence is paramount to the country’s democratic success. Yet, the National Unity leader confirmed that he has yet to decide which opposition candidate to back in the Knesset’s June 14 election of two lawmaker representatives to sit on the Judicial Selection Committee.

He and Lapid are planning to meet later on Wednesday to try to agree upon an opposition candidate, after publicly sparring earlier this week over the issue.

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