Israel’s Coronavirus Angst at Risk of Morphing Into Dangerous Populism

Economic distress and growing distrust of government could lead Israel down the dangerous path that ended in Trump

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Protest against PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana
Protest against PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir OhanaCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Not a few people are hoping that the demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence and elsewhere around Israel mark the return of the spirit of 2011, when streets filled with tent cities, teach-ins and giant rallies. But there are good reasons to worry that we’re witnessing is not another Summer of Social Justice but the rise of an Israeli Tea Party.

America’s Tea Party movement and Israel’s social justice protests had some things in common. Both arose more or less spontaneously, rode high on the zeitgeist of economic distress and then soon faded from the scene. Both also had broad impact: At their peak, the rallies in Israel drew hundreds of thousands. The Tea Party never matched these numbers on the street, but it had a profound influence on the 2010 congressional races.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Israel’s social justice protesters had a long list of grievances, but at their core they were about bread-and-butter issues that affect the middle class. Some fantasized about the tent cities and stroller parades being the start of a reordering of Israeli society, yet what most of the participants wanted were economic reforms that would make their life easier.

In the end, they got a fair amount of them. The tycoons were declawed, the cellphone cartel was broken up, air travel was deregulated and consumer imports were liberalized to a degree. Moreover, in the years after the protests, the economy boomed, unemployment fell to record lows, wages trended up and poverty began to edge down. The many attempts to reignite the social consciousness of 2011 drowned in mall shopping and vacations abroad. Bibi was returned to office not once but three times in the following years.

The Tea Party’s grievances went much deeper. It had its economic agenda of lower taxes, smaller government, opposition to corporate bailouts and a pathological hatred for Obamacare, but deep down it was about anger. The movement was less about what its adherents wanted and more about what they despised, which was the government, institutions and the class of elite experts.

As a movement, the Tea Party peaked in 2010, but its anger lived on and finally achieved victory with the election of Donald Trump. The president never declared himself a Tea Party member but his distrust of the government, his disparaging of science and facts in general and his Twitter rants are the embodiment of Tea Party values.

Why were Israel’s social justice protest and the Tea Party so different?

It starts with economics, but doesn’t end there. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 not only led to mass unemployment and repossessed homes in the U.S. but fatally deepened distrust in government and the expert elite. America’s leaders had allowed the crisis to happen and the experts were at a loss of how to solve it. Israel didn’t experience the 2008 economic trauma because the Great Recession never reached Israel. The grievances that animated the 2011 protests were real, but they were small by comparison.

This time things are different. The coronavirus crisis is affecting Israel much as the Great Recession affected America. The economy, of course, is in its steepest recession ever and will take many months to recover, even if COVID-19 is contained by a vaccine. For ordinary Israelis with jobs or small businesses, the pain is especially sharp. Unemployment and bankruptcies are going to be a fact of life for quite some time.

If the coronavirus crisis was only about economics, the wider impact in Israel would be limited. But it’s not only about that, or about Netanyahu’s personal responsibility. An Israel Democracy Institute poll shows that trust in Netanyahu has from 57.5% in March-April to 29.5% now. But it also shows that trust in medical experts has plunged from close to 64% to 40.5% and in economic policymakers from 48% to 23%.

Israelis don’t share the distrust many Americans have for government and elites, but they aren’t immune to it either. It’s much too early to say for sure that what we’re seeing now is an Israeli Tea Party and Trump-style populism. The ingredients are there, but the mixing and baking haven’t yet begun.

But like Trump, Netanyahu is not only fanning the flames of divisive politics, as he has done before, but is pursuing populist economic policies. The man once known as “Mr. Economy” has cast responsible economics to the side with his universal grant and needless politicking over a one-year/two-year budget.

Israel faces a difficult period. The government faces gaping budget deficits and has limited tools for coping with it. The last thing it needs is populist politics and irresponsible leaders that make the job harder than it has to be. There’s still time for Bibi to change his dangerous trajectory, but not much.