The coronavirus pandemic is spinning out of control, threatening to send Israelis back into total lockdown. The economic situation is going from bad to worse, with 21 percent unemployment and thousands of small businesses and independent contractors on the verge of going bankrupt. Experts warn that Israel could be facing extended medical and financial crises that could soon turn into an unprecedented national catastrophe.
LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoning
Small wonder that public anger is mounting, protests are proliferating and demonstrations are turning increasingly violent. The unusually violent dispersal of Tuesday night’s rally in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, including the arrest of its leaders, is being perceived as a harbinger of the brutal and volatile summer that lays ahead.
So far, Netanyahu has borne the brunt of the public’s frustrations. His approval ratings and polling numbers are falling rapidly. Netanyahu’s prolonged, larger-than-life omnipresence in Israeli politics has turned into a double-edged sword: After demanding personal credit for the country’s achievements over the past decade, he is now being singled out for blame for the government’s disastrous management of the coronavirus pandemic.
Netanyahu is facing two kinds of protests. Tuesday’s melee in front of his formal residence was political in nature, focusing on Netanyahu and demanding his resignation or ouster. The larger but more peaceful demonstration held in Tel Aviv last Saturday night, on the other hand, was ostensibly apolitical, with protestors attacking the government as a whole and refraining from singling out the prime minister by name.
Netanyahu is using classic divide and rule tactics to prevent a fusion between the largely leftist political demos and the mostly middle-class social-economic protests, which have included relatively large numbers of Likud supporters. To constrain the latter, Netanyahu enlisted – or created, according to some versions – one of the groups leading the protests, navigating its leaders to shift attention away from Netanyahu and to focus on the entire establishment instead.
Netanyahu, in fact, has expressed some empathy for the plight of the Tel Aviv protestors, a sentiment that stands in stark contrast to his belligerent response to the protestors outside his home. The hitherto sparsely attended sit-in picket lines outside his home, which focused on Netanyahu’s legal issues and his efforts to avert them, is attracting increasingly large numbers of protestors more concerned with ousting Netanyahu for his management of the epidemic and the recession.
To counter them, Netanyahu is adopting some of the diversionary tactics used by Donald Trump in the wake of the race protests that erupted in the U.S. following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Like Trump, Netanyahu and his ministers are equating the large masses of mostly peaceful demonstrators with the small and violent minority that clashed with police: Trump concocted a pivotal role played by antifa, Netanyahu and his minions are depicting all of the demonstrators outside his home as “leftist anarchists.” A hitherto-unknown fringe group has apparently mushroomed overnight to include thousands of Israelis who support its violent tactics, according to Netanyahu’s new and patently false narrative.
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Pundits and commentators claim that Netanyahu’s hostility to the protestors outside his home trickled down, through his confidante, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, to police officers in charge of keeping the demonstration in check. The police’s heavy handed arrest two weeks ago of protest leader Amir Haskel and increasingly forceful dispersal of demonstrators is counterproductive, the experts claim, inflaming Netanyahu’s opponents and snapping them out of their previous lethargy. Netanyahu has only himself to blame, they say.
But Netanyahu’s confrontational tactics may be intentional. By waving a red flag in front of his political opponents and galvanizing them to take to the streets, Netanyahu colors them as part and parcel of his opponents’ efforts to depose him by any means available. By politicizing the protests Netanyahu shifts attention away from his obvious failures on coronavirus, deters Likud supporters from joining in and rallies them to defend him from the evil left, thus creating the kind of polarized political environment in which he thrives.
Some of Netanyahu’s critics suspect far more sinister and nefarious foul play. They don’t trust the prime minister and therefore don’t believe in coincidences where he’s concerned. Netanyahu’s warnings this week that the government may order a renewed lockdown comes on the eve of the scheduled resumption of his criminal trial in the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday. His previous court date, originally set for May, was postponed for the same reason and under identical circumstances.
Netanyahu, according to this version, is similarly fomenting public unrest and depicting it as a violent anarchist plot not only to divert attention and rally his troops behind him. Under cover of both disruptive calamities, Netanyahu is amassing unprecedented emergency powers in preparation for his final assault on democracy and the rule of law, his detractors believe.
Netanyahu is concurrently lifting another page from Trump’s playbook by trying to shift blame for the renewed outbreak of the coronavirus on his rival coalition partner, Benny Gantz. The defense minister’s demand that the army be charged with handling the pandemic is being portrayed by Netanyahu as the main cause of its renewed surge.
Netanyahu’s assertion is no less ludicrous than Trump’s Tuesday night effort to blame Joe Biden for the coronavirus catastrophe in America. In both cases, however, Trump and Netanyahu’s loyal bases will eagerly lap up the lie and direct their frustrations not at the prime minister who has ruled Israel for the past decade, but on a former vice president who has been out of power for four years, in the U.S., and on a defense minister who has been in office for all of two months in Israel.
Thus, a coalition ostensibly set up to muster unified public support for combatting coronavirus is in danger of being torn apart because of disagreements over the very same issue. Despite his tumbling poll numbers, Netanyahu has been spoiling for a fight, challenging and frequently embarrassing his Kahol Lavan partner, risking the government’s fall and possible new elections.
Will he or won’t he? Only Netanyahu knows for sure, and even that’s not certain. Netanyahu often keeps his cards so close to his chest, he may not be able to read them either.
Like Trump, Netanyahu is finding it difficult to extricate himself from the coronavirus and economic crises with his usual fare of bluster and lies. Whether his latest tactics will relieve the pressure or, on the contrary, dig himself an even deeper hole to sink into – as Trump seems to be doing – remains, at this point, completely unknown.