Israel Loses a Real Opposition

Protest Leaders Wary of Coalition Between Bibi and Mofaz

Happy Partners: Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz seem happy about their new coalition deal. But some Israelis worry that the new government has little incentive to be accountable to anyone except itself.
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Happy Partners: Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz seem happy about their new coalition deal. But some Israelis worry that the new government has little incentive to be accountable to anyone except itself.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published May 11, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombshell of a governing deal with Israel’s major opposition party leaves the government with no other faction in parliament of significant size opposed to it. After Netanyahu consummated his coalition agreement with the Kadima party on May 8, in the dead of night, he coolly canceled the early election that he had called for the coming September just a few hours earlier.

The Israeli leader’s surprise tactic effectively rendered the Jewish state a parliamentary democracy without a significant parliamentary opposition.

As a consequence of Netanyahu’s grand bargain, a historic 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats will be in the hands of the now expanded governing coalition. The remaining 26 are split up among a variety of tiny factions, including the once-mighty Labor Party, which through factional splits and loss of voter support, now holds just eight Knesset seats.

“When you have a coalition vote of almost 100, on the face of it, it reminds me of a kind of dictatorship,” Zahava Gal-On, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, told the Forward. The defection of Kadima’s 28 Knesset seats to the government’s side, she said, “affects the ability of the opposition to be critical of the government.”

Ben Gurion University political scientist Dani Filc predicted that the radical shrinking of the opposition will be felt most powerfully in Knesset committees, where a large amount of the chamber’s business is conducted. Representation in these committees is assigned in proportion to party strength.

“In practical terms the government will have complete control over every parliamentary committee, and this means that any role left for the opposition, which was already weak in this Knesset, will be a renunciation role — like the prophets of the past saying, ‘This is not good.’”

Stav Shaffir, a leader of the social protests that rocked Israel’s streets last summer, convened 2,000 people in three locations to demonstrate against the unity government on May 8. She told the Forward she fears that the now tiny parliamentary opposition will cause an intensification of what she calls undemocratic legislation. Citing the so-called Boycott Law, which penalizes individuals who voice support for campaigns to boycott West Bank settlement businesses and some other controversial legislation, she said: “Even before the unity deal shrunk the opposition there were lots of anti-democratic moves, and now it will be easier for the government to push even more.”

Shaffir worried in particular that the government will use its strength to ramp up what is widely seen as its attempt to weaken the power of the Supreme Court.

Last summer’s protests mobilized hundreds of thousands of Israelis, and at their height polls indicated that 87% of citizens supported them. In the new reality, Shaffir claimed, the government has a carte blanche to ignore this public pressure. “To not have an opposition in a place where the feeling on the streets is so against the social policy that everyone expects the unity government to adopt is terrible,” she said. Her movement is now “probably the only opposition,” she claimed.

Israel does have several precedents for its new political arrangement. Most were emergency unity coalitions during wartime. But in 1984, Likud and Labor, under Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, respectively, formed a peacetime governing majority even larger than the one Netanyahu now commands: 97 seats out of 120.


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