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Real Opposition Politics

Real Opposition Politics

A ‘shadow cabinet’ would give Israelis an organized, effective way to hold lawmakers accountable.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

Election frenzy is underway in Israel, and everyone wants to know who will win and what they’ll do. I want to know who will lose and what they will do.

The next government will make key decisions about the direction of the state. But it could well be the next opposition that will succeed or fail in holding together the social fabric of the state.

Israelis love to win. That desire is a great asset in many areas, such as high-tech where the “fail fast, move on” ethos sees Israelis try new ideas, give up when they don’t work out, and move on to come up with the next great idea.

Unfortunately, elections here are treated by parties in the same way that pitches to investors are treated by start-ups. Came out smiling? Great. Failed to get the result they want? Redevelop the product (rebrand the party, change the leader, or start a new party) and wait for the next opportunity to pitch again (the next election — it’s never far off).

What is lacking is a culture of organized and constructive opposition politics. In fact, the culture that you have on the opposition benches is that the lawmakers who shout the loudest and come up with the most outrageous camera-grabbing antics get the attention, while those with a semblance of intelligence may as well be invisible.

It is not a new problem, but one that has intensified since 2005, when Ariel Sharon established Kadima, and Israeli politics were no longer dominated by a strong Likud facing off against a strong Labor.

Israelis have the power to change the haplessness of their opposition, if only they would insist that parties representing them make detailed promises regarding how exactly they will conduct themselves if they don’t win gold. Yet voters don’t bother — they have come to accept that the opposition benches are just a prep area for the next election.

Why does the sorry state of the Israeli opposition matter so much? Because it signals political instability, keeps political discussion at a base and populist level, and most importantly, because it means that those Israelis who didn’t back the winning horse and whose views are not reflected in the government feel unrepresented in the Knesset.

Many people become cyclical about the whole political system. For others, the answer lies in voices outside the Knesset — reputable or less reputable — which have become a kind of proxy opposition. The lack of opposition politics has led to a situation where critiquing the government has fallen almost entirely to volunteers. On settlements and the peace process it has rested upon non-governmental organizations. On economic issues it has fallen to the social protest movement, which was too young and inexperienced to demand real gains. And on Iran it has fallen to retired military and intelligence chiefs.

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming election, a large proportion of the population will find itself outraged by the new government’s direction. If there is a victory for the left, Israel may well find itself withdrawing from large parts of the West Bank, to the horror of settlers and their supporters. If there is a victory for the right, policies are likely to cause dismay among Israeli Arabs and left-wing Jews.

In both of these scenarios, tensions are likely to boil over into violence and strife — both ends of Israel’s political spectrum have proved in recent months and years that they have people who are prepared to unleash violence and disobedience if things don’t go their way. To keep these fringes in check people must feel that there is a real outlet for their frustrations in the political system. Israelis need an organized and effective opposition.

To understand just how badly broken the Israeli opposition is, consider the most important deal reached with Palestinians of recent years. In 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a deal with Hamas to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in return for the freedom of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier Hamas was holding. Then head of the opposition Tzipi Livni — candidate for prime minister in the coming election — was against the deal, but kept quiet and only announced her position afterwards. As a result, objections to the deal were muted in the Knesset.

The Israeli electoral system serves as an invitation for lawmakers to wait out their time in opposition. There is no particular group of people making demands of them, keeping them accountable, and insisting on knowing their positions on given issues during their term in office. This is because, unlike in the U.S. and many other countries where lawmakers have residents of their electoral district placing expectations on them, Israeli lawmakers don’t represent a certain electoral district — they simply come from their party’s national list of candidates. They can choose to be hardworking and try their best to challenge the government, as some do, or to sit doing little, as too many do.

But there is a simple way to change things.

Israel is crying out for a “shadow cabinet,” a lineup of lawmakers from the opposition benches that reflects the composition of the actual cabinet, as found in the UK and several other countries. The shadow defense minister scrutinizes the defense minister and serves as the main address for comment on policy; the shadow justice minister does the same for the justice minister, and so on.

A shadow cabinet in Israel should be an alliance of several parties; it would be something like the coalition Livni announced in 2009 when she said she was forming a “shadow team,” though her team was merely a lineup of people from her own party that proved an irrelevance and fizzled out. The arrangement would shift critiquing the government from a media circus where publicity-hungry lawmakers can say anything so long as it makes a good sound byte, to an opposition that would need to be carefully considered. In short, Israelis would hear from their opposition a realistic alternative vision for running the country on all matters.

The level of political discourse would rise enormously, the government would feel hawked and therefore perform better and become more accountable, and Israeli democracy would gain a new relevance in the eyes of the citizens. Israelis who are dismayed by the government’s path will hear their voice expressed clearly by designated people in the Knesset, and feel less frustration and less pull to join  hot-headed protest groups.

If the lawmakers have the issues in hand, citizens will be less likely to take the law into their own hands.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice monthly.

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