Last Monday morning, Prof. Yoram Yovell left his home in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion and pitched a tent a few miles away in Independence Park, a few blocks from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence.
The Israeli psychiatrist, TV personality and bestselling author tied an Israeli flag to his tent and planted a sign outside listing the charges for which Netanyahu had recently been indicted: bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The following morning, he posted a letter to his 40,000 followers on Facebook, telling them this was how he hoped to intensify pressure on Netanyahu to resign and avoid a third round of elections in the space of a year. He urged them to join him.
“Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who is holding 9 million Israelis hostage, is now barricading himself in the prime minister’s residence on Balfour, here at the end of the street,” Yovell, 61, wrote. “He thinks this house belongs to him. He thinks he can hide there forever from the long arm of the law in the State of Israel. But he’s mistaken. This house is not his. This house on Balfour Street belongs to us, all the citizens of Israel. Tell me, my brothers and sisters, have we gone out of our minds? What is happening now is not only disgraceful but also dangerous to Israel.”
The first night, his younger sister Ofra Liebowitz joined him, pitching her own tent next to his. “For two nights, it was just the two of us,” Yovell tells Haaretz. “But since then it seems to be growing exponentially. Right now, there are somewhere between 15 and 20 tents. And besides those who come spend the night, there are many more who come during the day to show solidarity. Last count, I’d say there were about 150 people.”
Yovell, the grandson of one of Israel’s most original and controversial thinkers, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, plans to stay put until either December 11 (the end of the 21-day period in which any Knesset member can try to form a government) or until a new government is successfully formed, whichever comes first.
“I have no illusions about influencing Netanyahu,” Yovell says. “My aim is to give the more moderate members of his Likud party — those who know his days are numbered — the guts to do what they’re going to do anyway and avoid another round of elections.”
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Keeping it topical
Among Israel’s “lone protesters” against Netanyahu, Amir Haskel, 66, is perhaps the most long-serving. The retired air force brigadier general began his one-man crusade against the Israeli leader more than three years ago — “Before there were any indictments,” he likes to point out — and runs the “Lone Protesters” Facebook page, where he posts events and relevant news items under the motto “Loving Israel, separating from Netanyahu.”
There is hardly a junction in Israel where he hasn’t stood with his protest signs. He makes a point of changing them every week, he says, so they are always topical and newsworthy.
“It was after Netanyahu formed his right-wing government in 2015 that my stomach first started turning,” recalls the grandfather of six. “That’s when they started with all the antidemocratic legislation, and I felt I just had to do something.”
Since the indictment against Netanyahu was announced by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on November 21, Haskel has been organizing convoys of protesters on key highways around the country. This past Friday, for example, 25 cars covered in Israeli flags and anti-Netanyahu banners participated in one such drive in the greater Tel Aviv area.
Netanyahu’s detractors have been turning out in greater numbers and in greater frequency in recent weeks, including at least 10,000 protesters at a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. But as Haskel points out, lone protesters — those, like him, who avoid the big crowds — require much thicker skin.
“The people who go to big demonstrations, they’re the people who are already convinced and on the same side,” he notes. “But when you stand all by yourself at an intersection, there’s always that fear that somebody’s going to attack you.”
Haskel is used to be attacked by now. Sometimes he gets cigarette butts thrown at him; sometimes it’s canned beverages. Often, he gets called a traitor and is urged to “Go to Gaza!”
On Friday morning he is standing at one of his regular spots: a traffic circle in his hometown of Yavneh, central Israel, not far from a local elementary school. “It’s a good place to stand because all the parents picking up their kids pass by,” he explains.
He wears a black T-shirt that says “Lech” (Hebrew for “Go”) and holds a homemade sign stating: “Resign! Israel is more important! Netanyahu, go home.”
As cars slow down at the roundabout, he tries to engage the drivers. “Shabbat Shalom,” he says, wishing them a peaceful weekend. Many respond with a mantra popular among Netanyahu supporters: “Only Bibi. Only Bibi.”
“Dream on!” yells one man as he drives by.
“I like to dream,” Haskel responds good-naturedly. He probably knows better than most that almost 40 percent of the local electorate voted for Likud in the September election.
A bearded man walking his dog stops to say that although Netanyahu is “corrupt,” he is the only politician capable of running the country. Haskel spends the next 10 minutes trying to convince him otherwise.
Haskel cautions against drawing conclusions based on the loudmouths passing by. “Look at all those who are waving, beeping, flashing their lights and giving me a thumbs-up,” he says. “There are many, many more of them.”
He estimates that there are no more than a few dozen die-hards like him standing with their anti-Netanyahu signs, week after week, at key intersections across the country. Most of them are in their 60s and 70s. “It’s hard to get young people in Israel interested in political protest,” he laments. “They’re terribly apathetic.”
That number hasn’t changed much despite the dramatic downturn in Netanyahu’s fortunes in recent weeks. What has changed, according to Haskel, is the responses he now gets from passersby.
“It used to be that 30 percent of those who passed by would engage with me, with about two-thirds of the responses positive,” he recounts. “Since the indictment was announced, I’d say that about 60 percent engage with me, with 85 percent of the responses positive. The negative responses, though, have become much more aggressive.”
While serving in the military, Haskel founded an organization that takes Israeli soldiers on tours of the Nazi death camps in Poland. A veteran of dozens of such trips, he says he gained valuable insights into human nature — which may explain his newfound calling.
“The most important thing I came away with in my intensive study of the Holocaust was that most human beings, when they sense danger, will tend to be bystanders. That is what enabled something like the Holocaust to happen,” he says.
On Sunday evening, Haskel joined Yovell at his Jerusalem tent camp for a public event: A discussion on why people opt to be bystanders. The event, attended by 300 Jerusalemites, featured several famous Israeli “upstanders,” including Moti Ashkenazi — the renowned lone protester who, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, created a movement that ultimately brought down the Labor government.
‘Black sheep’ of the family
Haskel was not entirely alone at the roundabout last Friday. A bit later in the morning he was joined by Sharon Shmorak — who hails from the town of Gedera, about a 20-minute drive from Yavneh. A high-tech worker, she enlisted in the lone protester movement in March just before the year’s first Knesset election, “out of deep concern that this country was on the verge of becoming a dictatorship.”
At 48, she’s much younger than most of the other lone protesters. “I probably bring the average down by 20 years,” she jokes. But that’s not the only reason she feels a bit out of place in this group: Shmorak grew up in a gung ho Likud family.
“My mom still votes Likud,” she says, “and it’s very hard for me.”
As she says this, she holds up a sign that names every Likud politician serving in the Knesset who has either been indicted or is facing indictment. Netanyahu tops the list.
Last May, when it seemed Netanyahu was well on his way to setting up the most right-wing government in Israeli history (before a key potential partner, Avigdor Lieberman, balked, forcing the do-over election), Yovell had threatened to do something more drastic than pitch a tent in a public park. At the time, the prime minister was trying to rally support for a law that would grant him immunity from prosecution if he were indicted. In a column published in the bestselling daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Yovell warned that if the new government tried to pass such a law, he planned to wrap himself in the Israeli flag “as if it were a prayer shawl,” lie down on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway and stop all traffic between the country’s two biggest cities. “I don’t think any drivers will run over me, and I don’t believe I will be the only one,” he wrote.
Since such legislation is no longer on the agenda, Yovell says he doesn’t believe such drastic measures are required right now. But they may well be down the road, as it were.
“The big question we need to be asking ourselves these days is when enough is enough,” he says. “When do you say, This can’t go on any longer?’ It’s not an easy question to answer, because Netanyahu is incredibly skillful at raising the temperature very slowly and quietly. And I think he has habituated our ability to be surprised and shocked by what he does.”
For all his concerns, Yovell is remarkably optimistic — and maybe this is why: “For every angry response I get from people passing by my tent, I get three who give me a thumbs-up. When you think about the fact that we’re in Jerusalem [a key Netanyahu base], that’s pretty remarkable.”