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Analysis

Hobbled by disunity, Lapid’s opposition may struggle to have a fighting chance

In contrast to Netanyahu’s alliance, the ‘change bloc’ is ideologically diverse and won’t toe any line, but may find common cause against the hardline coalition’s extreme impulses

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, and Defense Ministrer Benny Gantz at a state memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers of the Yom Kippur War, at the military cemetery memorial hall on Mount Herzl, October 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, and Defense Ministrer Benny Gantz at a state memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers of the Yom Kippur War, at the military cemetery memorial hall on Mount Herzl, October 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid is expected to soon become opposition leader, since he heads the largest party that is not planning to enter incoming premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. But though his Yesh Atid party has been acting as if it leads an alliance, its erstwhile allies from the outgoing government are peeling away from the notion of a unified opposition.

Infighting over how to manage the so-called “change bloc” started during the campaign season, but exploded into full-out blame-casting after the election delivered a crushing blow to two former Knesset parties, the left-wing Meretz and Palestinian nationalist Balad. Although Balad did not align itself with either Lapid’s or Netanyahu’s bloc, it played a strategic role in bloc-building math.

Both Meretz and Balad narrowly failed to clear the 3.25 percent of the vote threshold to enter Knesset, burning 288,789 votes and solidifying the Likud-bloc victory. Labor leader Merav Michaeli – who adamantly refused Lapid’s urging that she run a joint slate with Meretz – heaped blame on Lapid, alleging he mismanaged the bloc. Her criticism extended to Lapid failing to keep Balad as part of the Joint List and not strong-arming all parties outside Netanyahu’s Likud-led bloc to make surplus-vote agreements.

Politicians from Benny Gantz’s National Unity party also attacked Lapid for bloc mismanagement, with an anonymous senior source calling Lapid’s campaign strategy “a resounding failure” that failed to play the critical ground game.

Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist Ra’am party, said shortly before the election that he was aligned with Lapid’s bloc and on Sunday it joined a meeting of parties heading into the opposition with Yesh Atid faction chair MK Boaz Toporovsky. But later in the day, Ra’am MK Walid Taha made it clear “that Ra’am has never been part of a bloc, and it will consolidate its positions and decide about its next steps.”

Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas delivers a statement to the press at the Knesset, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the National Unity party, led by outgoing defense minister Gantz, said shortly after the election that it will continue to build itself “as a governing alternative,” indicating that it was not lining up behind Lapid. During the campaign, Gantz campaigned as a candidate for prime minister, undercutting Lapid’s leadership of the bloc.

Neither National Unity, nor Ra’am, nor right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, nor non-aligned majority-Arab party Hadash-Ta’al recommended Lapid to form the next government during their meetings with President Isaac Herzog last week, opting instead to make no recommendation.

In the end, only Yesh Atid and the much-weakened Labor party – now the Knesset’s smallest with only four seats – put Lapid forward for the premiership, a symbolic gesture that nonetheless speaks volumes about who Yesh Atid has in its corner.

(From left) Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Merav Michaeli sit together after their new coalition wins Knesset approval, June 13, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The disunity should not come as a total surprise for an eclectic smorgasbord of parties that came together in June 2021 against all odds given the ideological gulfs between them. Then, as now, their strongest unifier was the desire to keep Netanyahu out of power.

The outgoing opposition, on the other hand, was united by common threads of right-wing ideology and, among Likud and the Haredi parties, longstanding political partnerships.  The bloc was disciplined about taking down the change government, decrying it as illegitimate from the start and calling its first prime minister, Naftali Bennett, a “scoundrel” as he ascended to the Knesset floor.

The singular focus on toppling the coalition — a risky strategy that saw the Likud-led bloc torpedo legislation it and its voters ideologically supported — ended up paying political dividends.

Lapid has signaled that the opposition under his leadership will take the high road, opposing the government, but not the state. Leaders from Yesh Atid and National Unity explain this to mean that they will support legislation they deem “good,” and oppose measures evaluated as “bad.”

But just because Yesh Atid deems a bill “bad” does not mean Yisrael Beytenu or any other opposition party will. What discipline there will be among the incoming opposition will come mostly as a product of their shared refusal to provide broad support for Netanyahu’s coalition.

At the same time, there is a deeper ideological thread that unites the parties moving into the opposition: their professed commitment to liberal democratic values. While opposition parties may disagree about Palestinian statehood, for example, they are unlikely to find much to argue about among themselves when it comes to opposing the panoply of far-reaching reforms and policy rollbacks being readied by Likud-bloc parties.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Zionist parties of the incoming opposition have been united in attacking Netanyahu-ally proposals that would put a political thumb over the courts, constrain eligibility for Jewish emigration to Israel under the Law of Return, extend sovereignty over the West Bank without granting Palestinians citizenship, reverse religious liberalizations, deport “disloyal” citizens, and ban gay pride parades, among others.

By pushing for extreme proposals that almost nobody in the opposition could fathom supporting, the incoming coalition is seemingly making it easier for its opponents to find common cause to rally around.

Although there is much ideological diversity within its right-religious side of the spectrum, the Likud-led bloc is aligned on being a “fully right-wing government” whose central struggle may be restraining its members’ most drastic impulses, rather than squabbling over the rough bounds of what it means for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic.

Should the Netanyahu-led government succeed in delivering the political stability it promises, the new opposition will have time to finally stop its infighting, perhaps align on core principles, and maybe even find its own power.

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