The Israeli opposition failed. Here’s how it can redeem itself

Israel’s next coalition stands to be one of the most pro-annexationist parliaments in the history of the state. Now, it’s up to the opposition to defend democracy.

Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White Party, gives a speech after initial voting results in Israel’s general elections are released, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 09, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White Party, gives a speech after initial voting results in Israel’s general elections are released, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 09, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Dear Opposition —

There is really no way to say this nicely: you failed.

You failed in the campaign, and you have failed over the past decade, while Netanyahu governed with a far-right hand.

Blue and White, you failed to realize that voters who oppose Netanyahu wanted a difference in substance. By the end, I heard too many people complaining that your party didn’t have any.

Perhaps you thought that anyone who wants Netanyahu out enough will come running without any bait. Many did – that’s the bulk of your 35 seats. But Netanyahu’s natural opponents were already voting for parties on the center or left, which represent just over 40 percent of Israelis. Cannibalizing them helped no one. To be sure, it seems clear that some votes came from the right, too – Moshe Kachlon lost six seats, and overall the right-wing bloc lost two.

But you knew what you really needed were moderate right-wingers who supported Netanyahu in the past, who were considering defecting, to weaken Likud. Anyone who voted Netanyahu in 2015 clearly isn’t motivated by long-term resentment – they break with him on specific issues. Why didn’t you address any? Instead, you pilfered figures from Netanyahu’s earlier governments and posted ads with a gruesome ticker counting dead “terrorists.” Instead of offering an alternative, you offered a second-best version of him.

I hated your terrorist body-count ad, but at least the conflict was an issue. Another Blue and White ad even mentioned peace, but these spots were soon gone, and within the first weeks of campaigning, there were no more issues.

As I’ve heard it from the soft right and wavering Likud voters, they were unhappy with the erosion of democratic norms. In my B’Tselem survey, 42 percent of the moderate right hold favorable views of the Supreme Court, almost double the number of firm right-wingers (just 25 percent). The issue is splitting the right.

What if you had promised to strengthen the judiciary and other pillars of democracy, and fight back against the assault on liberal democratic norms, instead of burying the issue of “rule of law” on page 18 of your dry, vague party platform? Even when you attacked corruption, it was only about Netanyahu, rather than the larger implications for Israel’s political culture. Netanyahu loves when the campaign is all about him, and surely knows how to make it work – for him.

It was arrogant to think voters would defect blocs because you told them to. You should have thought about what you stand for, or at least what the voters actually want.

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay addresses supporters as the results in the Israeli general elections are announced, Tel Aviv, April 9, 2019. (Flash90)
Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay addresses supporters as the results in the Israeli general elections are announced, Tel Aviv, April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

While we’re on the topic of arrogance, dear Avi Gabbay: after taking over the Labor party, you made the most crass neophyte mistake of thinking that if you just dressed right, right-wingers might be fooled. Amazing that anyone saw through it!

Later, when you couldn’t handle your party’s decline, you naturally blamed someone else, and fired Tzipi Livni in public. That ended her political career for now, but also kicked you off a poll cliff from which Labor never recovered (despite a few surveys showing that Labor might rally).

You only showed that Labor has a petulant leader with a temper and no clear compass. Your only campaign platform was that you wouldn’t sit with Netanyahu in a coalition. Voters hate coalition politics and they detest internal party fights. Six seats is the worst Labor result, ever.

Labor, can’t you just be yourself? Your platform can barely mouth the words two-state solution. If you were too scared to proudly support peace through two equal sovereign states, couldn’t you at least have defended Israeli democracy?

Don’t worry, opposition – you’re not alone in making mistakes. I must admit that I experienced schadenfreude watching the New Right go down. This party’s leaders are the outgoing education and justice ministers. Together, they gouged a hole in Israeli democracy through policies to eviscerate the judiciary and edge out civics from public education, in favor of religion. They mocked democracy altogether in both the infamous “fascism” ad, and a spoof music video of a breakup between the IDF and the Supreme Court. The spots were smug and ugly, and the party didn’t make the electoral threshold.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the New Right party, wants to give the Knesset a veto over Supreme Court decisions, March 12, 2019. (Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the New Right party, wants to give the Knesset a veto over Supreme Court decisions, March 12, 2019. (Flash90)

But something’s terribly wrong. After a decade of racist political jingoism, ethno-nationalist legislation, laws to constrain civil society and political expression, creeping annexation, and forever occupation, aren’t you — the two main opposition parties — ashamed that the only campaign addressing Israeli democracy came from a party advocating greater injury? Maybe you thought democracy is best left to Meretz, Hadash or Balad. That’s a great way to ensure that democracy is viewed as a negligible item belonging only to the far-left or Arabs, in Israeli terms. It’s hard to surprise me, but I never expected the main parties of the “opposition” to drop this fight.

I’ll have to skip Netanyahu. He is too clever to make serious campaign mistakes.

Maybe the Palestinian-Arab citizens made a big mistake by not voting in higher numbers. I wanted everyone to vote, but I understand. Israel’s government threw Arabs under the bus with the Jewish Nation-State Law, elevating Jewish citizens above all others. No Jewish party with a chance at power said, boldly, “tear down this law.” Arab leaders were helpless to stop it, just as they have been powerless to halt the avalanche of laws and political incitement against them over the course of a decade. They have never held executive power by sitting in Israel’s governing coalition, either. What good does voting for the legislature do?

Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv on August 11, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv on August 11, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Redemption

These election results are very close to the ones that preceded it, and Israel will most likely have a government similar to the last. The results reflect the fairly static ideological breakdown of Israeli voters – especially Jews, who voted in higher numbers.

Most policies on the economy, foreign relations, religion and state and the non-existent peace process probably won’t change. But one major policy area will change –accelerate, in fact. Between Likud and its likely coalition partner, the United Right party, the next coalition stands to be the most pro-annexationist parliament Israel has ever had. The longtime policy on the ground will finally be given a name.

Netanyahu said it a few days before the election. Likud members said it, somewhat unnoticed, but carefully recorded, in February. Bezalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home party (part of the United Right) says it and does it – he proposed a slew of legislation in the last Knesset to advance annexation. He co-sponsored some of these bills with none other than a Likud member, Yoav Kisch.

Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters of the United Right, a union of right wing parties, at the party headquarters on April 09, 2019. (Flash90)
Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters of the United Right, a union of right wing parties, at the party headquarters on April 09, 2019. (Flash90)

Whether annexation is de facto or formalized, Israel must decide about the status of Palestinians caught up in expansionist fever.

Dear opposition: the campaign would have been hard to win, no matter what. Going forward, we need you more than ever. You now lead 43 percent of voters — over 1.8 million people who looked for something you couldn’t deliver. This is your shot at redemption.

If you care about democracy but you were afraid to say so on the campaign trail, start now. You must insist on stronger protections for the Supreme Court, the place where citizens as well as those living under Israeli control can go to demand human, civil and minority rights.

If you care about democracy in the long term, teach children about those rights, about the equality of all citizens, and the right of all people to representation in the structures that govern their lives. Tell them about individual freedom and social solidarity. Tell them about the values of cultural independence without demands for loyalty or government interference. Teach them about freedom of political expression without government intimidation, freedom to express national identity when it is different from the majority. If the new government cut out civics from public education, set up classes in community centers. Tell our children, “We’ll see you in school.”

If you care about democracy in the short term, meaning right now – call de facto annexation by its name, and demand that all people living under direct Israeli control live as equals, under civilian law like their neighbors. Should Israel formally annex territory where a single Palestinian lives, demand that Israel offer full citizenship for those who want it, and equal protections for all, no matter what. Otherwise, insist that Israel no longer control Palestinians at all.

A modest proposal: stop worrying about how to win campaigns. Just be an opposition.