Anti-Netanyahu Protesters Are Excited by the Energy, but the Next Step Isn’t Clear

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Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Paris Square in Jerusalem, July 14, 2020.
Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Paris Square in Jerusalem, July 14, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

While young protesters were clashing with the police and blocking the light rail on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road Tuesday night, the leader of the city’s protest movement, Amir Haskel, was heading home.

“The demonstration ended at 10:30 P.M.,” he said. “We cleaned the whole street, and I made sure there were people staying to sleep there” at the protest tent he had set up outside the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street. “Then I went home. Only then was I told what had happened.”

As he put it, “The fact that people are committing vandalism isn’t connected to me. That isn’t my way. At the start of the demonstration, I said the protest I’m leading is a quiet, nonviolent, determined one.”

But while veteran protesters view Tuesday’s unusual demonstration and the clashes with the police as a turning point, it’s not so clear what comes next.

They’re happy that young people have joined the protest movement, giving it new energy as Israelis protest Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus and economic crises, including measures such as cellphone tracking by the Shin Bet security service.

But they fear that the public debate might be diverted from the prime minister and his corruption trial to the violence by a minority of protesters.

“Ninety-five percent of the demonstrators were excellent, but five percent were idiots,” said Rami Matan, who has been active in the protests for around 18 months and organized a “pajama party” Thursday night in which hundreds of people sought to sleep on the sidewalks near the Balfour Street residence.

Demonstrators outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, July 16, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The young protesters haven’t said what the purpose of their protest is aside from organizing one demonstration after another by the “black flag” anti-corruption protesters, the self-employed, the artists. So it’s not only right-wingers who are comparing the effort to the social justice protests of 2011, which were driven by the energy of the young but lacked a clear message.

Shira Florentin, a 28-year-old from Jerusalem who attended the “pajama party,” says the only way to continue the protests is to focus on emotion rather than words.

“We need to give people a good feeling – that they’re part of this,” she said. “The idea is to set up a nonhierarchical movement that will study solutions together and form a leadership.”

Sigalit Kesler is a leader of the protests in Petah Tikva who waited in vain more than three years for young people to join the weekly demonstrations in the city’s Goren Square. Still, she’s not skeptical about the new initiative.

“Yesterday in Jerusalem, I felt like a bride on her wedding day,” she said. “We sweated and suffered blows, arrests and intimidation for three and a half years, and finally people have woken up and understood what we were saying.”

Kesler, like others, now plans to redirect her efforts from Petah Tikva to Balfour Street. And she believes that the vague goals of the new uprising are less important than its existence.

“I’m not certain these young people know what they’re fighting for, but they came with a gut feeling of ‘if not now, when?’” she said. “Young people have to take responsibility for their lives.”

Sigalit Kesler at the start of the protests at Petah Tivka's Goren Square in 2017. Credit: Ilan Assayag

It’s also not clear who is now assuming responsibility for the protest movement and whom they represent – the older protesters who have been in the streets for years, or the young people who, spurred by the economic crisis, have managed to pull the protest in new directions very quickly.

The older protesters “are trying to use this situation – in which the general public and the young people have woken up – to attract even Likudniks to the protests against Netanyahu,” said Ishay Hadas, another veteran anti-Netanyahu protester. “Their numbers are growing; it’s no longer just older, classic leftists.”

He attributed Tuesday’s successful demonstration to a combination including the groundwork laid by the veterans.

“Bibi has his finger in the dike,” Hadas added. “He’s trying to falsely portray this as a civil war, even though for us there’s no circumstance under which that would happen. If he wanted to stage a demonstration against the left today, he’d get a maximum of 500 people.”

Still, how can pressure from the street get Netanyahu out of office?

“I’m hoping for disturbances of the peace,” replied Yigal Rambam, another veteran protester. “My dream is that we’ll see 10,000 people sitting at Balfour Street and not letting him leave. That’s very aggressive, but also nonviolent and effective.

“If not that, then we’ll block the Ayalon Highway,” he added, referring to the main highway that runs through Tel Aviv. “But not at 11 P.M., but rather on Sunday at 7 A.M.” – that is, at rush hour when Israel’s workweek gets underway.

Gonen Ben Itzhak, a high-profile activist in the demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, July 14, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s hard for the activists to rely on precedents like Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, each of whom resigned as prime minister due to public pressure. They admit that Netanyahu is made of different stuff.

“But in the end, the pressure we’re applying will have an influence,” argued Matan, a veteran of one of the bloodiest battles of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “Add a small revolt inside Likud and opposition to the Finance Ministry’s economic plan, and in the end this will get him to resign, for lack of any other choice. He’ll take a plea bargain and resign.”

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