The weekly anti-Netanyahu demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem are filled with colorful and original personalized protest signs. But during the latest installment on Saturday night, it was a scrawl in pink chalk on the asphalt of Agron Street that summarized it best. “We want all kinds of things,” it read.
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The protests are calling for Benjamin Netanyahu to resign. The most popular slogan being chanted is “We won’t give up until Bibi leaves,” and some of the most evocative signs are those featuring the Hebrew word lech (go), in the white-on-blue font seen on Likud’s official logo. But the weekly protests are indeed calling for all kinds of things.
At the center is a campaign against corruption and safeguarding Israeli democracy. But there are multiple additional strands: calls for reunifying Israeli society and rejecting Netanyahu’s divisive politics; an increasingly bitter protest against the government’s inept handling of the coronavirus crisis, racism and violence; and calls for solidarity with Israel’s Arab citizens and an end to the occupation.
A large contingent at Saturday’s protest was campaigning against sexual violence, following the suspected gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Eilat. There were also those calling for “Justice for Solomon, Justice for Eyad,” merging the separate protests of Palestinians and Ethiopian Israelis against police violence.
Assaf Sharon, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University and veteran of left-wing demonstrations, said that “the mixture of causes is one of the things that makes this protest so potent. I’ve seen young men who just finished their service in elite Israel Defense Forces units shouting ‘Justice for Eyad.’ There’s something deeper brewing here.”
Most of these causes place the demonstrations firmly within the left-wing stratosphere – but this isn’t a left-wing event. Dotted around the protest camp in Paris Square, there are pockets of left-wing activists holding up signs in Hebrew and Arabic. The great majority of protesters here identify as either Kahol Lavan, Labor or Meretz voters. “There are hundreds of right-wingers here,” insisted MK Andrey Kozhinov of Telem, the small right-wing opposition party. Perhaps, but I couldn’t find any. Besides, the last thing the protests are promoting is party politics.
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There were three party leaders at Saturday’s demonstration – Ayman Odeh (Joint List) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), but also Telem’s Moshe Ya’alon, the former IDF chief of staff and defense minister who once called Peace Now and “the elites” a virus.
Ya’alon was greeted politely as he walked around Paris Square, as were the other politicians. They simply weren’t the point. The Balfour protests are not political in that sense. Many of the protesters voted for parties that are now in the dysfunctional governing coalition. They aren’t about to trust another politician anytime soon, from any party. There are no leaders here. It’s deeply personal for everyone.
There’s no platform at the Balfour protests, physical or ideological. Instead, there’s a collective desire to end the Netanyahu family’s extended stay in the ugly villa across the square, hiding behind a wall and a massive black curtain. No speeches are made. Half a dozen different grassroots groups are behind the protests, but most of the thousands arriving have done so of their own accord. This is a section of Israeli society that doesn’t need to be bussed into Jerusalem. They’re mobile.
Netanyahu and his retainers have attacked the Israeli media for adopting the Balfour protests as their pet cause and inflating the importance of a group of “anarchists” and “aliens.” That is, of course, a gross exaggeration. But it’s true to say that the typical Israeli journalist feels very much at home here. It’s a crowd that’s uniformly secular (I counted five kippot on Saturday night, one of them belonging to a member of Rabbis for Human Rights), middle-class and achingly Ashkenazi. The kind of people who are still – not ironically – called “the good old land of Israel” and “normative citizens” in Hebrew.
It’s a warm and well-behaved group, all wearing protective face masks correctly, diverse in age and gender – if not social background. “Sara [Netanyahu] said everyone is doing drugs here,” mock-complained one woman. “I’ve come here five times already but still haven’t found any!”
Amit Avigur, a student from Be’er Sheva, was wearing a customized T-shirt with the slogan “Moroccans against Netanyahu” and admitted that “demographically, most of the people here are Ashkenazi. But I’m half-Moroccan, half-Egyptian, and I don’t want the protest to be dragged into that Ashkenazi-Mizrahi false discourse. This is not what we’re about here. There are many grievances here, and they should all be heard.”
Bar Kostrinzky, a software programmer from Tel Aviv who’s been furloughed due to the pandemic, added: “People like me who don’t usually go to protests are feeling for the first time in years we have a cause.”
There was a tiny group of young anarchists wearing black shirts and red bandanas (one of whom was filmed stamping on an Israeli flag). But they’re atypical, with many of the crowd proudly waving Stars of David flags and singing the national anthem at the end. The radical fringe is about as large as the number of those practicing meditation on the square or those listening to a bright-eyed man with a tiny loudspeaker who delivered an hour-long lecture on biblical morality and capitalism.
“Everyone says this is a left-wing Ashkenazi protest, but my mother was born in Tripoli and voted Likud in the past and she came as well,” said one demonstrator.
Not your usual protest
The Balfour protesters are old-school Israeli patriots. A sign held by one stated “I’ve done 22 years of army reserve duty and they call me a traitor.” The older men at the protest are eager to emphasize the high positions they once held in the IDF and other government agencies. This is very much the old serving elites fighting back.
This isn’t your usual protest. There are plenty of part-time activists here, but the majority of the estimated 20,000 at Saturday’s demonstration weren’t “regular” protesters. And anyway, most major anti-government protests in recent decades have taken place in central Tel Aviv, a convenient walking distance for most of the participants who retire to a bar or restaurant afterward. Now they’re all driving up to Jerusalem, sacrificing their entire Saturday night, and they’ve been doing so for nearly two months.
Some of them are currently unemployed due to the pandemic, but this isn’t a protest of hungry people, fearful for their livelihoods. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been left jobless have yet to join. This is comfortable, middle-class Tel Aviv-area Israelis going to Jerusalem. And that’s actually one of their advantages.
Most of the media coverage this weekend focused on the violence meted out by the police who tried to prevent a procession making its way from the main entrance to Jerusalem to Balfour, and then to disperse the thousands at Paris Square earlier than usual.
And there was violence. Cameras captured Chief Superintendent Nisso Guetta punching demonstrators and independent journalist Or-ly Barlev being pushed and groped by officers. A mother of four was hurt, nearly trampled by one of the police horses, and an older gentleman, who stressed in interviews he was a former IDF colonel, was pushed to the ground and arrested when he tried to help her.
But as clashes between protesters and police go, this wasn’t particularly violent. Their social status protected them to a degree. Smaller protests by marginalized groups – Arab Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian Israelis – would have suffered much worse fates if they’d blocked central Jerusalem week after week.
The instances of violence were isolated. Most of the police were disciplined, even deferential. With a few brief exceptions, matters didn’t get out of hand. A few of the protesters verbally abused the police, but the vast majority remained friendly and had to be told by the police not to pet their horses. Everyone instinctively took a time-out when a couple with a tiny baby suddenly found themselves stuck between police and protester lines.
The privilege of the Balfour protesters is their strength. They aren’t disgruntled Netanyahu voters who have gone over to the left – but they are much closer to his social milieu than he would like his supporters to realize. These are the kinds of people Netanyahu meets in high-level meetings with the security establishment and the business community. They were never close to him politically, but their opposition to him rarely reached beyond the ballot box.
When even larger numbers of middle-class Israelis came out onto Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard for the social-justice protests in 2011, there were casual comparisons to the masses who had gathered in Cairo, Tunis and other cities across the Middle East in what was then still being called the Arab Spring. It was crass. The Israelis demanding cheaper housing knew they would return home safely at the end of the day. So too are the comparisons between the Balfour protests and the hundreds of thousands of brave Belarusians now on the streets of Minsk, calling for President Alexander Lukashenko to go.
Israel’s limited democracy, for all its many faults – and despite Netanyahu’s assaults – is nowhere near the levels of Lukashenko’s autocracy in Belarus. And the protesters at Balfour are not about to depose Netanyahu. Until wider parts of Israeli society join in, this won’t threaten Netanyahu.
But these sustained, large protests are significant. They could have been a factor Sunday in Netanyahu abandoning, at the last moment, his plans to call an early election in November. The opposition in the Knesset is split and dispirited, but the real opposition is now on the streets outside his residence.
The Balfour protesters aren’t an electoral threat to him yet, and they’re much too well behaved to storm the residence. But the steadfastness of mainstream Israelis in coming up the hill every Saturday evening in their thousands, and their willingness to confront the mounted police, is a warning light for Netanyahu. Kahol Lavan is still in his coalition, one of its lawmakers (Avi Nissenkorn) is justice minister and Netanyahu’s trial is going ahead, for now. But that may change.
This will be difficult to sustain. The 20,000 Balfour protesters may stop coming every Saturday when winter arrives. But they will return. Netanyahu is still planning to try to snatch a temporary Knesset majority, whether by cajoling or bribing a few recalcitrant legislators or calling an early election. Should he succeed, he will pass legislation shielding him from prosecution and fire Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.
The politicians may have failed to stand up to Netanyahu, but the Balfour protesters are now the insurance policy of Israeli democracy.