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Herzog's opposition strong, but headstrong

Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog is confronted with an opposition that is larger, stronger and more complex than it has been for years, but his position as its head could be challenged.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Isaac Herzog, co-leader of the Zionist Union party after he was sworn to office in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, following the mid-March general elections, in Jerusalem May 14, 2015. Netanyahu's new rightist coalition government, hobbled from the outset by its razor-thin parliamentary majority, was sworn in late on Thursday amid wrangling within his Likud party over cabinet posts. REUETRS/Jim Hollander/Pool - RTX1D0Z3

Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog took the stand in the Knesset the evening of May 14 and surprised lawmakers, even those of his own party.

Having failed to convince the public during the election campaign and its aftermath that he was sincere in pledging not to join a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Herzog went on the offensive. Suddenly he was sounding unfettered and sincere when he suggested that the prime minister appoint someone from his Likud Party as foreign minister because he, Herzog, had no intention of entering such a losing government.

Netanyahu himself sat in the plenary, occasionally staring at Herzog’s burst of assertiveness. The prime minister looked tired, distracted and lonely. His fourth government was sworn in after a two-hour delay, without one iota of festivity. He appeared to be taken by surprise by this new Buji (Herzog) whom he had planned to appoint as his foreign minister — if and when he expands his government.

Up until the very last few days, Herzog was carefully circumspect with Netanyahu. Although he did say, repeatedly, that he would not join Netanyahu’s government, he sounded unconvincingly lackluster. So much so, that he came under public criticism from within his own party and was accused of abandoning the opposition arena to Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid. Any outside observer would have been convinced that Lapid was the leader of the opposition, Knesset member Itzik Shmuli said this week in an interview with Al-Monitor.

But it was not the internal criticism that made Herzog slam the door over the possibility of joining the coalition with conviction (at least for the near future). In recent weeks he had seen Netanyahu conducting sloppy coalition negotiations, being blackmailed by the HaBayit HaYehudi party, and ending up with a 61-member coalition with each member essential for its survival. Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s surprising decision to stay out of government caused Herzog, too, to rethink his plans. Such a vulnerable government is every opposition’s dream, not to mention that of the opposition chairman, and Herzog was suddenly infused with vitality.

Many scenarios are possible under such circumstances, starting with one in which Netanyahu is unable to govern, his government is brought down and new elections are called — and going as far as a constructive no-confidence vote after which an alternative government is formed with Herzog at the helm in the current Knesset and Netanyahu is sent packing.

Head of a party with 24 Knesset seats, and with Liberman also active within the opposition on his right, with a small force but with fierce determination to bring about Netanyahu’s political demise, the opposition suddenly seems a good place to be. Not to mention the fact that Herzog’s determined stand, and his excellent speech on May 14, gave him an immediate boost within the Zionist Camp party, where some had already started counting the days to his political downfall after the elections.

Herzog’s joy at his opposition position was compounded when it turned out that one of the Likud’s top stars, the respected and popular Gilad Erdan, would not be joining the government. Although Erdan does not intend to vote against a Likud-led government in order to topple it, it would not be wild conjecture to assume that he will turn into a fairly major headache for Netanyahu — a sort of an opposition within the coalition. One need only have followed the warm embraces with which Herzog, Liberman and Lapid greeted Erdan when he arrived at the Knesset the evening of May 14 to understand that his being left out of the Likud beehive was superb news for the opposition.

It’s been ages since the opposition enjoyed such favorable circumstances for doing its job effectively and reliably, but it remains unclear whether it will be able to take advantage of the situation.

The first reason lies in the fact that powerful forces, with contradictory interests, are at play within the opposition. We’re talking about Lapid, who is already in the throes of a run for the premiership ahead of the next elections.

Former Finance Minister Lapid, who was fired from the Netanyahu government just six months ago, in December 2014, garnered 11 Knesset seats in the elections and has since proven oppositionary skills and mettle while overshadowing Herzog. In addition, as far as Lapid is concerned, Herzog is less an enemy than Netanyahu, and perhaps even more so. He is the rival from within the camp and Herzog will therefore have to fight him in order to achieve his goal. That is why in recent days Lapid has not missed any opportunity to demean and ridicule Herzog and the Zionist Camp for displaying weakness vis-a-vis Netanyahu. “I don’t understand their silence … they are not exactly determined to lead the opposition … if they don’t lead from the opposition, we will,” Lapid said. The Zionist Camp was not to be outdone, and fired back: “It’s funny to see someone still basking in the perks of government playing at being the opposition.”

Lapid differentiates himself from the Zionist Camp with his continued war against the ultra-Orthodox and against an expansion of the government, and even with his political positioning as “light right” compared to the Zionist Camp, with many of its members leaning distinctly to the left with a bent toward Meretz.

Liberman is operating in the same arena with the two of them, and since announcing that he would not be joining the government he is proving an interesting and active opposition. The former foreign minister is known to bore easily. It will be interesting to see whether he can remain politically engaged on the benches of the opposition. As far as Liberman is concerned, an attack from the right has two main goals: Netanyahu and his government, and the Arab faction within the opposition.

“How is it that the government’s basic policy guidelines don’t include bringing about the collapse of the Hamas government? And how come they don’t include construction in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs? Stop pretending to be right-wing … this is a government of opportunists on borrowed time,” Liberman lashed out in his May 14 Knesset speech.

Liberman, according to his associates, has not given up his dream of leading the right and becoming prime minister. That means that three potential prime ministers are operating within the opposition. Good for Netanyahu, bad for his rivals.

With the 59-seat opposition busy fighting each other, Herzog’s challenge as its leader will be to focus the struggle, and challenge Netanyahu and the Likud every minute of every day.

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