As I was about to leave the pro-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv last Tuesday to file my report for Haaretz, a right-wing journalist — one of the group of broadcasters who have made their living in recent years as the prime minister’s proxies — grabbed my arm. "You see this power?" he said. "Your lot can’t beat this."
Perhaps I had missed something. I looked again at the 7,000 or so people who had gathered outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. I went back into the crowd and spoke to some more of them. I didn’t see any power. Plenty of anger, bitterness and fear, but none of the power that comes from a group of people uniting around a joint purpose. Perhaps I’m blinkered by "my lot," but I just didn’t see it.
Normally I love Likud events. Once you put the politics and the empty suits who represent the party aside, there’s a warm and self-deprecating humor to Likudniks you simply don’t find anywhere else on the Israeli political scene, and a belief that anyone is reasonable if you spend long enough talking to them.
Likudniks have a sense of self-confidence from having spent most of the past four decades in power. But because they feel that Israel’s notional "elites" have yet to come around to their way of thinking, there’s none of the sneering superiority of the center-left. The grumbling over how they’re portrayed by the "hostile media" is almost always good-natured.
Likud has power because it’s the only grassroots mass-movement in Israel. It’s the only party that is truly a political home. It may have been captured by Benjamin Netanyahu, who uses it as his personal platform, but it will remain a movement after he leaves the political stage. It may lose an election or two. But unless the center-left in Israel finally manages to articulate a coherent message that is more lasting than just opposition to Netanyahu, it will be back in power before too long.
Tuesday’s rally wasn’t a Likud event, even though Netanyahu poured party resources into its organization. It wasn’t a Likud event not only because there were many voters of other right-wing and religious parties. There simply wasn’t any of the Likud atmosphere there.
But it was a useful reminder that Netanyahu’s political magic has never been based solely on Likud, ideology or even the fact that he delivered years of uninterrupted economic growth and relative peace. His election victories, especially the first in 1996 and the last in 2015, were built on the coalition of resentment. Every real, imagined and out-of-date source of bitterness is there to be exploited. Every fear and trauma and source of anger stoked.
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These ranged from the very real grievances of the Mizrahi aliyah of the 1950s and ’60s; the fear of the right from another Oslo process; the shared experience of Netanyahu and the national-religious community when they were accused of complicity in Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination; the feelings of insult of Shas voters at the conviction of their champion, Arye Dery; bloody memories of buses exploding in the second intifada; and the impotence of the settlers when, in the space of eight days, Ariel Sharon’s Likud government dismantled the settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria.
There are so many contradictions that Netanyahu has overcome in knitting together his coalition of bitterness. What else bound together the disparate groups that made up the crowd, except for resentment and a fear of a mythical "left"? What else brings together the followers of the homophobe Rabbi Tzvi Tau and fans of Amir Ohana, Israel’s first openly gay minister?
The anger Netanyahu has whipped up against the legal establishment was so powerful that there was a group of Ethiopian Israelis also participating, carrying banners protesting the deaths of members of their community at the hands of the police. It didn’t matter that every minister in charge of the police in this period has been appointed by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s coalition is weakening, as his failure in the two wasted elections of 2019 made clear. But it can still transcend other tribal divisions in Israel.
The near-unanimous support of most religious Zionist rabbis for him in recent days, including a call on their followers to attend the rally (which was only sparsely heeded), came despite the fact that the two men most responsible for the indictment are not secular left-wingers. Former police chief Roni Alsheich and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit are both devoutly Orthodox and much closer to those rabbis in every way than the ultra-secular Netanyahu.
The results of the last two elections, the surveys showing that barely a third of Israelis now want Netanyahu to remain in office, and the machinations beneath the surface within Likud to ease him out — all attest to the dwindling of his powers. But the traumas still linger and there will be other politicians seeking to exploit them: The ease with which Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan — which more than anything resembles a pre-Netanyahu Likud, with a good many actual Likudniks among its members — has been branded as "left," and the fact it has still proven impossible to build even a tacit alliance with the Arab-Israeli parties, confirm that.
Netanyahu didn’t invent the divisions within Israeli society, and past Labor governments are as responsible for them as Likud. He just exacerbated them cynically to serve his political purpose.
When Netanyahu does leave, there will be little room for triumphalism. The underwhelming rally last Tuesday proves that he does not have the troops to set Israel ablaze with angry protests against the deep shtetl, but that the anger is real — and will remain after Netanyahu. Especially as he, and at least some of his proxies, will still be around to keep the narrative alive.
Not only those Israelis who have been yearning to see him leave the prime minister's residence on Balfour Street should bear this in mind. But also those who care about Israel from afar and engage with Israelis. Netanyahu’s English-speaking proxies are fighting this battle in the United States as well, both because it mirrors in many ways the impeachment battle against Donald Trump, and because the media narrative in Israel is so often reinforced by that in America.
The counter-narrative cannot be that Netanyahu’s departure was a rejection of all he stood for and of the reasons Israelis voted for him in the past. This has to be about the legal issues, the corruption and the 63 pages of the indictment. There is ample reason in there as it is.
Netanyahu is trying to hijack the political divide in Israel and make it all about himself. Those who oppose him cannot fall into the same trap. The rule of law and the accountability of the most powerful in the land are crucial — but this will be one important, but lonely, triumph.
Once a corrupt prime minister has been ejected, every other problem facing Israel will still remain.