Will the Real Opposition Stand Up: Is Anyone Trying to Save Israel From Netanyahu, Endless War and Isolation?

Dahlia Scheindlin / Haaretz
Will the Real Opposition Stand Up: Is Anyone Trying to Save Israel From Netanyahu, Endless War and Isolation? A rally in Tel Aviv to protest the moves to overhaul the judicial system. (photo: Oded Balilty/AP)

Benny Gantz's unsurprising departure from the Netanyahu government won't strengthen the opposition, because Israel barely has one worthy of the name. That's bad news for ending the Gaza war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Benny Gantz has supplied the latest political headline in Israel, announcing his departure from the emergency war coalition on Sunday evening and surprising exactly no one.

The country is still reeling – this time from happiness – over the rescue of four hostages from Gaza on Saturday. The Israeli media is busy reporting on the triumphant rescue while contorting itself to avoid mentioning that Israeli forces killed hundreds of Palestinians in the raid, including many civilians. On Monday, the news moved on to the Haredi-draft legislation and Gantz became one more headline filler, distracting Israel from the biggest dilemmas of today, and tomorrow.

Gantz wanted to make an election feel inevitable, especially ahead of a key vote about the Haredi draft on Monday. He tried to ignite political momentum by calling on Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to join him and rebel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from within Likud, since Gantz's departure alone cannot prompt a snap election.

But even if the country does inch closer, will it matter? If Gantz is the hope, there is no genuine opposition in Israel today; no competition over ideas or paths for the future, or over the principles for the kind of country Israel ought to be.

Gantz ran in five election cycles, but managed to promise absolutely nothing regarding the country's greatest albatross: the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shame on anyone who believes it would have been a strategic mistake for Gantz to clarify his positions during his five years in Israeli politics. Nobody should have needed the current war to know what a deadly and unforgivable mistake it was to "manage the conflict" and sideline the issue all these years.

What is Gantz's electoral appeal to the public now? On Sunday he declared that he was exiting the government because Netanyahu has prioritized his political survival above the good of the country, and has failed to make the right decisions – or any of the core decisions – as a result.

This was not rocket science: polls show that the public believes that Netanyahu's decision-making about the war was tainted by his personal need to keep his government from collapsing, rather than substantive national interests. Some version of this belief was shared by a majority of the public from the start of the war through to last Friday's Channel 12 survey, which found yet again that the majority of Israelis believe Netanyahu plays politics regarding the fate of the hostages.

There's a bit more to Gantz's position. In mid-May, he outlined six key goals the government should adopt regarding the current war. Several of them imply an end to the war someday – such as accepting a hostage deal; establishing a multilateral international authority for civilian rule in Gaza as the basis for some future authority that is not Israel; and setting a date for displaced residents to return to Israel's north.

These raise as many questions as they solve. Is Gantz calling for an end to the war in Gaza? What about the northern border? The euphemistic line about "repatriating residents to Israel's north" contains life-and-death multitudes. The residents will only return when Hezbollah is no longer a threat, and that will only happen through diplomacy or a full-out war.

Gantz may have helped constrain such a conflagration with Hezbollah at the start of the current war, but what about now? Hezbollah says that ending the war in Gaza will lead to a cease-fire in the north too. Should Israelis believe this? We don't know, and Gantz isn't telling – not about any of these options.

Architect, not an alternative

The fact is that Gantz is an architect of how Israel has run this war, not an alternative. He seems to envision ending the war through the Netanyahu-Biden plan and his day-after tidbits, but he won't say the words. His vision for the long term could range from ongoing military occupation, full-out annexation or a strategy to reach a political agreement for Palestinian self-determination. Who knows?

Don't look to the right for political opposition. Gallant is the only member of Netanyahu's government to have challenged the prime minister's worst policies: he took a stance against the judicial assault, opposes the emerging Haredi draft-exemption law, and he made a bold public statement in May against Netanyahu's feckless march toward Israel's complete civilian and military occupation of Gaza.

But the defense minister has done a strange dance to act defiant while being complicit. He has said nothing about leaving the government. He has not managed to convince any fellow members of Likud or Netanyahu's cabinet to leave the government. He told an important truth about what permanent military grip over Gaza means for Israel ("bloodshed and many victims," and an all-consuming military sinkhole), but he is an architect of Israel's wartime policies too.

If he takes no action to stop the government, his words of warning mean little.

What's his vision for ending the conflict? The last time I could find anything on record from Gallant about a political agreement was nearly a decade ago, when he acknowledged the possibility of a Palestinian state while campaigning to enter the Knesset with the Kulanu party. He said it at a retirement home, perhaps presuming deniability through death of his audience. Does he have a pathway or an alternate vision to the autocratic, isolated, illiberal Israel living by the sword alone that Israel's big right-wing constituency can consider? Tell me if you find it.

The other nationalist-right-wing political figure, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, is no ideological opposition. He only detests Netanyahu – he is a politics-only shadow of an opposition. He supports the war, the brutal destruction of Gaza and a military presence in Gaza, just like the occupation of the West Bank. The idea of a Palestinian state has "shattered into pieces and can't be revived," he wrote a few months ago.

To be sure, this has helped him in surveys, which show him roughly doubling his current Knesset strength. But other than scaring the bejesus out of Israelis in recent interviews by warning of multifront invasions, including Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias through Jordan (not inconceivable, it should be said), and invoking the word "Shoah" in his warning – the only thing Lieberman isn't saying is just what Israel ought to do about it. Preemptively strike everyone? Asking for every voter in Israel.

A limping opposition

Then there are the leaders of competitive political parties who are supposed to represent a true ideological opposition, from the center, left, and Arab or Jewish-Arab parties. They are limping along, but Yair Lapid still represents a significant chunk, about 15 seats in surveys (compared to 24 in today's Knesset). He is the last significant political leader in Israel to have publicly backed a two-state solution before the catastrophe of this war, from the podium at the United Nations during his brief term as prime minister in late 2022.

Those who assume this position is an electoral kiss of death are advised to recall that not only did voters not punish Lapid, he rose seven seats in the elections shortly after, in November 2022. It's amazing what leadership can do.

Lapid has been far more constrained during the war. He prefers to make a show of supporting hostage families, which the government brutally neglects, criticizing Netanyahu's leadership, or rightfully pointing out that he warned of the grave and imminent security threat just ahead of October 7. Like every single Jewish party leader in Israel, he has completely backed the war for most of the time.

However, in interviews, he still admits that two states is the preferred, if deferred, path. Nobody in Israel is talking details or dates – but at present that's the best Israel Palestinians, or international interlocutors, have to work with. His political agenda over the years promises a more liberal Israel, internationally integrated with liberal democratic countries. But everything hinges on whether Lapid internalizes that the latter is a fantasy without the former – and develops policies to prove it.

That leaves Yair Golan, another lifetime military man. Golan recently won the Labor leadership primary, generating a bump that pushed the party above the 3.25 percent electoral threshold in the last couple of polls, after seven months under. Golan supports separation from the Palestinians, liberal-democracy and greater equality within Israel.

But generals actually have a murky track record in Israeli politics, despite the myth. At the level of policy, the old separation paradigm, which was implemented to its fullest extent in Gaza over the last many years, didn't work out so well. Golan has to make a far stronger case for his policies, and for himself, than he has so far.

And finally, the much-diminished parliamentarian Ayman Odeh argues openly, as ever, that ending the war and returning to the pathway toward peace is the country's only hope, as he did at an impassioned, but tightly constrained, antiwar demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday. But he announced last year that he wouldn't be running in the next election.

Former Joint List legislator Sondos Saleh wrote in Haaretz this week that instead of reliving October 7 every morning, it's time to "solve the conflict instead of managing it, end the occupation, end the killing, the war and the bloodshed. Let's stand together, Jews and Arabs, and oppose this terrible war … and finally bring a bit of hope to this land." Yet the bitter truth is that hardly any Jewish Israelis will listen to either of them. They have been completely and successfully delegitimized, as individuals and for their identity.

Until Israel's mainstream politicians from parties with a critical mass of voters say these words, the next Israeli election won't be a genuine competition of ideas. But if the winner of that future election eventually embraces even a shred of this spirit, Israel would be a better place if it supports that path.

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