Now that the holidays are over and the deadline for the formation of the incoming coalition is fast approaching, political bargaining among potential partners is ratcheting up to a frenzied peak. That is also why talk about the formation of a national unity government is once again gaining steam. This scuttlebutt serves Likud purposes well: it gives it tremendous leverage in the negotiations and provides an opening for escaping the repercussions of a narrow right-wing government, while allowing it to ostensibly assert its national concerns and credentials. Yitzhak Herzog and the leadership of the Zionist Union should not be tempted. The only way they can influence events, leave hope for change and fortify Israel’s democracy is by staying out of the incoming government and honing a vibrant opposition.
The case for a broad coalition today, as in the past, rests on the debatable premise that such a formation, by giving the main opposition an opportunity to influence policy from within the corridors of power, attenuates extremism and therefore better serves the interests of broad sections of the public. Previous experience, however, shows that the impact of junior partners in recent governments is very limited indeed. As Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid learned to their peril, they provided a fig leaf — mostly for external consumption — and sanctioned national paralysis under the guise of unity.
Even the rationalization that such a government is necessary because of Israel’s state of emergency (given the multiplicity of threats it faces) does not hold water. Oppositions have supported the ruling coalition on vital security matters from outside (at times even uncritically) and can do so in the years ahead. The price they pay for suggesting that there is a popular consensus on basic policies, directions and underlying values is just too great at this juncture — not only for Israel’s immediate future, but also for its democratic character.
Democracies are based on the understanding that disagreements about how to conduct the affairs of state are inherent to contemporary societies, which are diverse in their human composition and the range of ideas they contain. No group possesses all the truth; no outlook is unassailable. Democratic regimes were constructed precisely in order to establish the guidelines by which disagreements would be aired (and thereby restrained) by putting in place arrangements that would limit the power of rulers and subject them to popular control through regulated competition.
These mechanisms are based on the principles of equality, the recognition of pluralism and the promotion of tolerance to go with it — as well as on the overriding obligation to abide by the rule of law. Adherence to these rules of the game is the essence of the democratic ethos. The institutionalization of a formal opposition — along with the guarantee of conditions for civic expression and association — are the most important means to assure its entrenchment. This is why vital oppositions have always been a key indicator of robust democratic life. Their role is especially crucial in contemporary Israel.
The 20th Knesset sworn in barely two weeks ago boasts a 53-member opposition — the largest in Israel’s recent history. This gives it an opportunity to fulfill the five main tasks associated with oppositions — and in the process revive democratic life in the country. The first, and most obvious, is to offer systematic alternatives to government policies by highlighting their weaknesses and suggesting other ways to deal with pressing problems. Oppositions thereby serve a dual purpose: they show up the frailties of ruling coalitions and simultaneously build themselves up as viable alternatives to those currently in power (indeed, Israeli political history demonstrates that rotations in the parties at the helm of government have only taken place when the contenders came from the lines of the opposition). Probably the most effective way of keeping this possibility in the public eye is through the creation of a shadow government which can facilitate closer scrutiny of all aspects of government activities. It is high time that the Israeli opposition initiate such a construct.
The second role of a working opposition, by extension, is to provide a series of check and balances on those in office. The parliamentary system is conducive to the fulfillment of such a role: it makes provisions for the expression of alternative voices (through motions of no confidence, the raising of multiple topics on the agenda, extensive committee discussions, parliamentary questions and ample opportunities for private member legislative initiatives). The institutionalization of the position of the leader of the opposition at the beginning of the 21st century in Israel helps to ensure that critical voices are heard and, sometimes, even incorporated into government decisions. The checks and balances exercised by the opposition are immediate and profound: they constitute the dynamic political counterpart to the formal separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary and endow it with substantive meaning (while sanctioning criticism in informal circles as well).
The third contribution of the opposition, therefore, is to pluralize and expand the scope of public discourse. Knesset debates, with all the vituperous interchange they often unleash, nevertheless supply occasions for the articulation of a variety of opinions. This is not only important in and of itself; it also legitimizes the expression of dissent in the broader public. A strong opposition within the House could ensure — much like in Westminster — more regularized substantive discussions (and perhaps a reduction in the shouting matches that have come to replace reasoned disagreements in the plenum, as in the public arena at large). Without it, there cannot be pluralism either in thought or in action.
The fourth function of opposition activities, especially in a deeply divided country such as Israel, is to encourage the production of public goods at the expense of the patrimonial mindset that has overtaken politics in the country. Democracies, like all other regimes, grant necessary advantages to incumbents to enable governability. But unlike other forms of government, they are constructed to prevent the transformation of the political arena into a zero-sum game. The controversy over Transport Minister Israel Katz’ refusal to entertain demands for public transportation on Shabbat and holidays on the grounds that his party won the elections tellingly highlights the growing penchant to see the state and its resources as the sole property of those in power. This attitude can be substantially mitigated by a strong opposition that insists that democratic comportment, involving the equitable production of public goods for all citizens, entails much more than mere majority rule.
The final, and in the Israeli context arguably the most important, role of a strong opposition is to expand the meaning of patriotism and loyalty to the state. The hegemonic tendency to entertain only one, monopolistic, ethnocentric interpretation of what is Israeli by intimating that all other meanings are by definition beyond the pale has carved a deep schism within Israel and adversely affected political and social inclusion (not only of specific groups, but, increasingly, of people of alternate political persuasions). Unlike what most Israelis think and some politicians proclaim, a strong and determined opposition in a multi-cultural society like Israel is probably the best prescription for greater unity and for a nuanced, positive, identification with the state.
For all these — and perhaps additional — reasons, it makes the most sense for those who just recently (and unsuccessfully) mounted the most serious challenge to date to Binyamin Netanyahu and what he represents to remain outside his fourth government. That is the only way they can keep other options alive, scrutinize government activities, pluralize discourse, promote policies for the good of the entire population and induce broad identity with the state. If they decide to be drawn into the new coalition, they may find ways to rationalize their own egos, but ultimately they will harm themselves, the public and the democracy which has held Israel together for the past sixty-seven years.