Analysis |

Netanyahu Now Has a Chance to Reshape Israel, but He May Not Like the Result

When protests go beyond the question of the prime minister himself, they demand a much higher price than his head – a deep and fundamental change of the social order and a new division of resources

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Protesters take down barriers at the end of a protest calling for Benjamin Netanyahu's resignation in Jerusalem, July 14, 2020.
Protesters take down barriers at the end of a protest calling for Benjamin Netanyahu's resignation in Jerusalem, July 14, 2020.Credit: אורן בן חקון
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

At first glance, the raucous demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Tuesday is the natural continuation of the ongoing wave of protests against Benjamin Netanyahu, recalling elements of the Goren Square protests in Petah Tikva, the “Black Flag” protests and Amir Haskel and company, even if reinforced by thousands of angry young people.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

Yet as long as no revolt against Netanyahu arises in the Likud strongholds, this protest too, fierce as it may be, will remain the lot of a certain camp that detests Netanyahu to the core and blames him for every possible ill.

But the danger Netanyahu now faces is greater than at any time in the past. He got himself in trouble due to a serious malfunction of his political radar and fell asleep on the job with Israel’s emergence from the first wave, which gave him a real boost. Instead of going all-out to build health systems and economic programs that would repair the damage from the lockdown and prepare Israel for an ongoing situation of living with the coronavirus, he turned his attention to matters the hurting public doesn’t care about, like annexation and badmouthing Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. As if the calendar showed January 2020 and the coronavirus was just some vague rumor coming out of Hubei Province in China.

The peak of his aloofness came when he fought for personal tax exemptions while the number of unemployed Israelis was skyrocketing and many others feared for their livelihoods. It would be easy to just accuse him of indifference and contempt for ordinary Israelis. While such accusations would be more than justified, his actions can also be seen as self-destructive. Which begs the question: Is Netanyahu once again pushing himself up against a wall, a situation in which, historically, he suddenly springs to life and unleashes his capacity for cruelty?

Maybe, but this behavior by Netanyahu could turn out to be a gamble too far. The incitement and division, the criminal cases and hedonistic lifestyle at others’ expense, which actually strengthened him with his base, are a small change compared to the crisis before us, a shattering historic event that is thoroughly upending people’s lives.

Socially distanced Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

This time Netanyahu has no one to blame and no one to incite against. The media, the Arabs and the leftists are not responsible for the confused and disastrous response to the second wave of the virus and the economic crisis. He is the one who bears the blame for the serious blow to public morale as Israelis watch nations that were worse off than Israel now managing to maintain a reasonable form of normality.

Any satisfaction over the good decade that Israel experienced in terms of security and economic well-being, for which his fans always give him credit, has given way to the bleak realization shared by all – that in the near and distant future, the already bad situation is going to get much worse. Lack of hope is a volatile thing which holds untold potential for harm. Netanyahu’s latest bright idea – more bonuses for every child – just goes to show that he still doesn’t grasp what world he’s living in. He is trying to stop up the dam with his pinkie.

If the crisis management continues in this way, and we are really on the brink of an unprecedented socioeconomic crisis, the toxic dichotomy that has prevailed in Israeli society for years – Only Bibi or Anyone but Bibi – will finally be broken too. This is a division that derives from the historic culture war in Israel, which was manifested in Netanyahu in the past two decades, and which so far no other crisis in Israel, no matter how serious, has been able to suppress.

When the protest goes beyond the question of Netanyahu, it will demand a much higher price than his head – a deep and fundamental change of the social order and a new division of resources. Protected reserves like the public sectors, the banks and the propped-up tycoons who still remain here will face a perfect storm, because a situation in which one part of the nation is afraid of starving and another, even if not flourishing like before, is feasting on full silos of grain, is not sustainable in the long run. Compared to the acuteness of the distress currently taking shape, the frustration that led to the 2011 protests will look like some pleasant summer picnic.

If that is where this ultimately leads, Netanyahu will leave the stage the way he strode onto it and appeared on it for years – as a revolutionary who changed Israel forever, but not necessarily in the direction he was aiming for.

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