Israel Pulse

Israeli opposition's internal battles play into Netanyahu’s hands

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Article Summary
Labor head Avi Gabbay's slander campaign against Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has weakened the whole center-left camp and left the prime minister without a viable rival.

When Avi Gabbay was elected in July 2017 to head the Labor Party, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid was among his many well-wishers. Lapid noted that Israeli politics needs good people like him.

Less than a year later, the possibility of creating a meaningful center-left bloc to stand up to the right and lead to a change in government has been shattered. The two leaders of the significant opposition parties failed to effectively cooperate in the Knesset to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they were too busy slinging mud at each other.

Netanyahu is reaping the benefits. He doesn’t have to spend energy and resources countering an opposition that is trying to bring down his government, and he is simply watching as the two people who wish to replace him fight each other. In the political history of the State of Israel, the opposition has never been in such a grave state that its leaders pray for the next election to be postponed as far as possible.

Channel 10's latest poll tells the opposition's sad story. Roughly three years since the 2015 election, the Likud headed by Netanyahu has grown to 31 mandates. The party of Lapid, who up to a year ago was considered a realistic candidate to defeat Netanyahu, has only 18 mandates and Labor, though Gabbay soared in the polls after his election and talked seriously about the prime minister’s office, has collapsed to 13 mandates.

The center-left camp doesn’t have a realistic candidate to run against Netanyahu for prime minister. When Lapid was doing well in the polls and challenged the Likud, he could have been perceived as prime minister material. As long he continues to weaken, many of his constituents seem to be waiting on the fence. Gabbay, after failing to reel in right-wing voters, has gone back to scavenging for votes in the center-left camp, and Yesh Atid has become his main target.

This week it became clear that Gabbay is focusing all his efforts on a battle against Lapid. On June 11, it was revealed that Gabbay is behind the online mudslinging campaign against Lapid — not Netanyahu, as Lapid initially claimed. According to the report, Gabbay is operating a company called Spotlight Political Research, whose main client is the Labor Party. Facebook pages like “No suckers” and “Enough Yair” that attack Lapid's soft underbelly — his lack of security experience — seem to be the work of Spotlight.

One of the “Enough Yair” posts read, “Imagine this. The middle of the night. The head of the Mossad is on the phone, saying that they have proof of the existence of a nuclear reactor. On the phone is prime minister … Yair Lapid. What would Yair do? Smear on some more hair gel? Look at the teleprompter and see there’s nothing there to read? That’s the man who would decide if we go to war, if we confront the threats or not? Scary …”

Gabbay hasn’t denied the accusation and continues to viciously attack Lapid. Labor criticized, among other things, “Lapid’s crybaby campaign" and said Lapid "should figure out whether he chose the right profession.” Yesh Atid responded, “The Zionist Camp’s mode of conduct and the pressure exerted by Netanyahu’s office stem from the fact that the public understands that the next election will be a race between Netanyahu and Lapid. It’s sad that the Zionist Camp wastes its time and public funds instead of leading change for the good of the country.”

Lapid and Gabbay are now spiraling downward within their own parties. While Lapid is Yesh Atid's almighty ruler and has no opposition in his political house, Gabbay faces rivals at home who claim that he has led the party to a low point. Former Labor chair and Defense Minister Amir Peretz is doing so openly. On June 12, Channel 10 broadcast recordings from a closed meeting in which Gabbay and Peretz exchanged accusations. The fighting isn't helping the Labor win over the public.

The sense is that Gabbay and Lapid, separately and together, have not succeeded in creating an ideological alternative to Netanyahu — not in the diplomatic arena, nor in security. Too many times in recent months they have had to praise Netanyahu for his successes: moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, both of which Netanyahu’s associates claim stem from his excellent relationship with President Donald Trump. Lapid and Gabby, scrambling to find support on security in the form of former chiefs of staff, are not seen as players of equal weight with Mr. Security, who has also succeeded in responsibly navigating between the northern front (Syria) and the southern (Gaza).

The opposition is despairing at Netanyahu’s continuing political stability despite the criminal investigations of his affairs. Netanyahu has not only not lost support from his camp, he has grown stronger. In the end, their attempts to draw Likud voters have hurt them among the center-left, which has not liked their kowtowing to the right, especially in Gabbay’s case.

The opposition doesn’t have a leader, and that’s the reason for its collapse.

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Found in: labor party, zionist camp, yesh atid, yair lapid, avi gabbay, benjamin netanyahu, israeli politics

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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