Israel Pulse

Israeli opposition on the attack

Article Summary
The Labor Party and Yesh Atid finally looked like an actual opposition in joining forces against legislation advanced by the right-wing governing coalition.

For the first time since the 2015 elections, the Israeli political opposition has begun to show signs of life, reminding the public what a real parliamentary battle looks like. A successful joint effort by the Zionist Camp and Yesh Atid in the last few days resulted in the longest filibuster in Knesset history. Although the Recommendations law might still ultimately pass, the opposition's defeat following the filibuster was honorable. It was yet another sign that the opposition parties realize that 2018 will be a year of important political decisions, and perhaps, an election year as well.

One month ago, on Nov. 27, the opposition reached the lowest point in its history when 17 members absented themselves during the first reading and late-night vote on the original iteration of the Recommendations law. It was a terrible image for the opposition, perhaps the worst in Israel's history. There may be no symbol more emblematic of the Likud government's predatory abandon and alienation than this law, yet the opposition raised the white flag of surrender without even a fight.

The original version of the legislation, presented by Knesset member David Amsalem, was intended to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu face down the criminal investigations into his affairs by prohibiting the police from releasing their recommendations on indictment at the end of the investigation. This would give Netanyahu many months free from the public actually knowing whether the police are recommending his indictment (and it looks like they will).

The magnitude of the opposition's failure became apparent after the law passed the first reading in a vote of 46-37. Many opposition members stayed away as a courtesy to coalition members who could not be in attendance — they were attending the Saban Forum in Washington — thus balancing out coalition absentees. Put differently, they abandoned their duty.

The wake-up call for the opposition came in the form of the media's harsh criticism of their behavior toward the vote. That is why when the law came up for second and third votes, they forced the coalition to spend a good three days in the Knesset. It was only after a long filibuster, led by Yoel Hasson, chair of the Zionist Camp faction, and Ofer Shelah, chair of the Yesh Atid faction, was a toned-down version of the law approved. After 43 hours of speeches and debates, hundreds of reservations and plenty of gimmicks, it was decided that the law would not cover the current investigations into Netanyahu and Knesset member David Bitan.

Despite what is commonly believed, governments do not fall because of a particular opposition vote or another. Governments in Israel fall because they convey a sense of chaos, while the opposition offers a genuine alternative to the government, not just words to the media. That is when the system begins to crumble. The inevitable conclusion is thus that for the past three years, the Israeli opposition has failed in its task. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which was the long negotiations by former Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog to enter the Netanyahu coalition. Furthermore, leadership of the opposition is now acutely divided between Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid and Labor Chair Avi Gabbay.

Over the last few days, Lapid and Gabbay proved that despite their rivalry, they both stand to benefit from a proper fight against the Netanyahu government. That is why Yesh Atid's Dec. 28 petition to the Supreme Court against the corrupt Recommendation law was unnecessary. It actually exuded over-enthusiasm. In addition, as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said, it made a mockery of the Knesset's work.

Apart from this unwarranted move, in the fight over keeping supermarkets open on the Sabbath, Lapid and Gabbay again showed the kind of solidarity needed from an opposition. The Supermarket law is intended to appease the ultra-Orthodox parties following the last Sabbath crisis over train system repair work on the Sabbath. This bill represents another survival tactic by the Netanyahu government. According to the proposed law, the interior minister, currently ultra-Orthodox Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri, could overturn municipal bylaws allowing supermarkets to open on the Sabbath.

This is a sensitive political issue for Lapid and Gabbay. Both men see themselves as future candidates for the job of prime minister, so at some point after elections, they would have to enter into negotiations with the ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority coalition. It was, therefore, refreshing to see Lapid forgo playing to the ultra-Orthodox and instead stand with his predominantly secular electorate.

The same goes for Gabbay, who had previously been making every possible effort to associate himself with religion and tradition, including wearing a traditional skullcap on religious occasions. At the height of his game, Gabbay rejected the Jewishness of the left by embracing one of Netanyahu's old incendiary comments — "The left forgot what it means to be Jewish." Gabbay did this as part of his broader strategy, which includes appealing to the traditional right and to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox along the way. His recent decline in the polls and the realization that the Zionist Camp's secular voters were abandoning him reminded Gabbay that he is supposed to offer an alternative to the current government.

The Supermarket law is expected to soon go before the Knesset's Interior Committee in preparation for its second and third readings. Meanwhile, it looks like the law will not be limited to grocery stores in city centers. Many of the convenience shops operating in gas stations throughout the country might also be forced to close on the Sabbath.

Gabbay did the right thing when he threw his support behind Labor Party mayors who are trying to block the law with the rapid-fire passage of municipal bylaws, as the town of Givatayim is doing. In doing so, Gabbay showed that he now realizes that his base is mostly secular or traditional, meaning they do their shopping on the Sabbath even if they go to synagogue too. With this, he proved to the center-left population that he hopes to present an alternative to Netanyahu's right-wing, ultra-Orthodox coalition.

A third arena in which the opposition's fight is now gaining momentum is government corruption. Here too, Lapid and Gabbay are providing support to public protests. If they succeed in overcoming their fear of being identified with the left, the center-left electorate can, in turn, be brought along to believe that they represent a real alternative and are not just imitation Likud.

Found in: Governance

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3


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