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Israelis make their anger known

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For weeks, Israelis have been taking to the streets in increasing numbers demanding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation. They’re angry with the government’s handling of COVID-19 infections and the economic impact of the pandemic. But what’s really at the heart of these protests is political dissatisfaction

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is currently on trial for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust – charges he denies. His opponents, both within his coalition government and in the opposition, believe that every decision he makes is marred by personal interest.

Without fail, come any Saturday evening, his critics are waving flags and posters at many of the country’s intersections, smiling down from bridges, and shouting outside the prime minister’s residence in Balfour Street, Jerusalem. Most estimates suggest that not more than 100 000 people are participating in these displays of anger – a number too small to make a real difference other than garner media attention.

Still, Netanyahu is doing all he can to stop them. With his backing, at the end of last month, the Knesset (parliament) banned the number of people allowed to protest in one location. It also barred demonstrators from travelling more than a kilometre from their homes to attend a protest.

Netanyahu and his Likud party argued that this was necessary as part of emergency regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Protestors, however, believe Netanyahu supported the law more for his own benefit than for the fight against the pandemic.

The government’s current handling of the COVID-19 virus has left as many as 800 000 people unemployed and among them are many right-wingers. But the protests have failed to attract them. It’s not that they’re not critical of the way Netanyahu has handled the pandemic, but with topless women demonstrating (one sat atop a menorah monument outside the parliament building in Jerusalem) and the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu’s, name emblazoned on a giant penis-shaped balloon, they prefer to stay away.

The problem is that the protests have come to mean different things to different people. While some placards have decried unemployment as a virus, others have called for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Ironically, it’s this “free for all” nature that has driven the success of the demonstrations so far, but it could also become their downfall.

For many Israelis – especially those on the political right – waving Palestinian flags and calling for justice and democracy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is going too far. They say that instead of being about the prime minister’s mishandling of the coronavirus and the corruption charges he faces, the protests are an attempt by left-wing elites to overthrow Netanyahu’s Likud party. If, for example, the protests focused on economic issues, that would more readily appeal to a broad mass of frustrated right-wing voters and unify a disgruntled public.

As for ultra-Orthodox Israelis, they want Netanyahu to keep their yeshivot open, in spite of the high coronavirus numbers, (at the time of writing more than 2 200 Israelis have died from the virus). As it is, they usually participate only in protests that have to do with religious issues.

Another problem is that while the rallying call is for Netanyahu to step down, there’s no consensus amongst his dissidents who is better positioned to lead the country. A few months ago, many Israelis might have suggested Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party and a former army chief. But after a power-sharing agreement between him and Netanyahu was signed in April this year, Gantz’s popularity suffered a major blow. Once considered a potential threat to Netanyahu, his move to enter a coalition with him disgruntled many of his supporters.

Netanyahu is supposed to hand over power to Gantz in a year’s time, but most don’t expect that he will hold up his side of the bargain. Behind the scenes, members of Gantz’s party believe Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi is planning to resign from the government (and the Blue and White party) and take a third of Gantz’s supporters with him to become the new face of the opposition.

The 2020 budget is also a sticking point. The government has until the end of this year to approve it. If it doesn’t, the Knesset will automatically dissolve, leading to elections on 23 March next year. President Reuven Rivlin has warned against this, criticising Israeli politicians for dragging the country behind them like a “rag doll”.

Israelis have already gone to the polls three times within one year, and most seem resigned that the only way to extricate the country from all its problems is to hold another election.

The anti-Netanyahu protests are nothing new. They began about three years ago, but didn’t take off. They were limited to several small groups that mainly focused on the prime minister’s alleged corruption and failed to attract broad support. The coronavirus outbreak and its economic destruction changed all that.

And while largely peaceful, in some cases, the protests have resulted in clashes between civilians and the police. A headline in the Jerusalem Post newspaper earlier this month asked, “Why have protests begun to feel like war zones?” Demonstrators have been punched in the face by police. Several videos have gone viral showing officers shoving, tackling, and violently arresting protestors who in turn have hurled rocks and stones at them. Certainly, the country is very far from a civil war, but the scenes are disturbing. And although the protests are likely to continue for some time to come, it’s doubtful they’ll bring any real change.

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