The Challenge Facing Israel’s New Opposition

Last month, just before Benny Gantz announced that he would be joining Benjamin Netanyahu in a coalition, and as a result split Kahol Lavan down the middle, his party leadership partner Yair Lapid published an essay in Haaretz. The headline was “Not only ‘just not Bibi’: In the war of ideas, the center has solutions”.

The essay’s premise was that only Israel’s centrists can properly combine the Jewish and the democratic values inherent in the state’s character and that Kahol Lavan, as Israel’s centrist party, was much more than the “anyone but Bibi” party. Kahol Lavan, Lapid argued, had fundamental ideological differences from the parties in the Netanyahu camp.

A lot has happened since Lapid wrote his essay. What he likes to call “the Israeli center” hasn’t held – at least half of it – Gantz’s wing of Kahol Lavan, along with Labor, have now agreed to join a Likud coalition. In fact, three out of four of the parties that now make up the new Israeli opposition, were until recently partnered with parties that are going to be members of the coalition.

So what divides Gantz’s Kahol Lavan from Lapid’s Yesh Atid? What differentiates Amir Peretz’s Labor from the MKs of Labour-Gesher-Meretz who are staying in opposition? Or for that matter, what’s the difference between Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, which less than six years ago was still part of a joint list and parliamentary party with Netanyahu’s Likud?

Yair Lapid speaks at the ‘Black Flag’ protest in Rabin Square, April 19, 2020.Tomer Appelbaum

Suddenly plenty of Lapid’s fellow “centrists” are prepared to serve under Netanyahu. At least they proved Lapid’s point that they weren’t just about “anyone but Bibi.”

But that really is the only distinction between most of the opposition parties and their ideological partners up until recently. One group will join a coalition with Netanyahu and the other won’t. And that is the only thing binding Lapid and Lieberman, together with Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz and the Joint List’s Ayman Odeh. This opposition to Netanyahu has become even more pronounced now that Gantz and Peretz have agreed to go join him.

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, right, and Labor chairman Amir Peretz after deciding to merge their parties for Israel’s 2020 elections, December 12, 2020Meretz / Twitter

In fact, the coalition and opposition nearly mirror each other. Yisrael Beitenu is identical to Likud. Kahol Lavan and Yesh Atid are Siamese twins which have just been surgically separated, while Labor and Meretz are now two tiny peas in a pod. The only difference is that the coalition has the ultra-Orthodox in it, while the opposition has the Israeli Arabs. This explains how Netanyahu has survived despite it all. Most Israelis want him replaced — that much was clear from the results of the election two months ago. But his coalition is loyal to its Haredi partners and they reciprocate with unconditional support for the beleaguered prime minister. The opposition, on the other hand, was not prepared to embrace it’s Arab component in order to replace Netanyahu, which just goes to show that there are things even stronger than “just not Bibi.”