For the fourth week running, more than 10,000 Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv last Saturday night to protest corruption in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It was the first week, though, when they were joined – at least in spirit – by hundreds of right-wing voters holding a separate rally in Jerusalem.
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The anti-corruption demonstrations began over a year ago, on a much smaller scale, in Petah Tikva – situated some 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Tel Aviv.
Why Petah Tikva? It’s the hometown of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, and initially the protests were about his perceived foot-dragging in several corruption investigations against Netanyahu. Starting with a few dozen demonstrators, the weekly gatherings expanded over time, eventually drawing several thousand at their peak last summer.
By the time they reached Tel Aviv on December 2, the agenda had also widened. For many of the thousands of Israelis attending the protests on Rothschild Boulevard (dubbed the “Walk of Shame”), the target was no longer the attorney general, but rather Netanyahu and his entire government.
The protests’ relocation to the center of Tel Aviv was meant to take advantage of a sudden spike in public discontent with the government, sparked by a new bill that would prevent the Israel Police from publicizing whether there is sufficient evidence for indictment at the conclusion of a probe. The controversial legislation – which was passed into law late Wednesday night – was widely believed to have been drafted to protect Netanyahu by keeping the public in the dark about the police findings in his cases.
However, a day after the first big rally in Tel Aviv, which attracted more than 30,000 protesters, Netanyahu bowed to public pressure and requested that the bill be redrafted so it did not apply to the ongoing investigations against him. Nonetheless, the protesters have kept up their momentum.
The prime minister is currently under investigation in two high-profile affairs: one involving allegations that he received lavish gifts from wealthy businessmen; and another involving suspicions that he negotiated a deal with newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes for more favorable coverage.
The question now is: How long can these demonstrations continue to draw thousands of Israelis week after week, and at what point do the protesters declare victory and pack up?
The movement folds
As Israeli protest movements go, this one has lasted for an unusually long time. For those keeping watch, the natural benchmark for comparison is the social protest movement in the summer of 2011, which at its peak brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis onto the streets. Initially sparked by the rising cost of cottage cheese – a kitchen basic in Israel – it eventually expanded to encompass the country’s high cost of living, in particular the exorbitant price of housing. However, the protests only lasted for six weeks, the movement folding after Netanyahu agreed to address the demonstrators’ grievances by setting up a committee to propose solutions to Israel’s socioeconomic problems.
The current protest movement has lasted many times longer than that. According to Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a retired professor from Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University who has studied Israeli protest movements, persistence is usually a better determinant of success than the number of participants.
“When you have thousands, or even hundreds, of demonstrators coming out week after week, that is often more effective than one big demonstration with hundreds of thousands,” he says.
But the main predictor, Lehman-Wilzig explains, is the strength of the opposition to the cause being promoted by the demonstrators. “This is one of the reasons many of the protest movements led by the ultra-Orthodox have failed,” he says, noting an attempt many years ago to close a main Jerusalem thoroughfare on Shabbat.
“There is usually lots of opposition to these sort of sectoral protest movements,” he adds. Working in favor of the current protest movement, he says, is the absence of a large countermovement of Israelis who passionately believe Netanyahu has done nothing wrong.
Netanyahu and his loyalists claim corruption concerns are merely an alibi, and that the true intention of the protesters is to overthrow him and his democratically elected government. To bolster these claims, they have gone so far as to falsely accuse the protesters of taking kickbacks from left-wing organizations.
Lehman-Wilzig says he has no reason not to believe the protesters, and is therefore convinced that if the police recommend within the next few weeks that Netanyahu be indicted – as is widely speculated in the media – the demonstrations will end. “Once there’s a recommendation of that sort, the protesters will have achieved what they set out to do,” he says.
Although the protesters tend not to be right-wing voters, neither do most affiliate with the far left. In seeking to create a mass movement, the protest organizers have deliberately tried to avoid divisive issues like the West Bank settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aiming as much as possible for the middle ground.
On one occasion in recent weeks, when a group of boycott, divestment and sanctions supporters tried to infiltrate the crowd with big colorful banners highlighting their affiliation, they were angrily pushed away. Last Saturday night as well, when a protester appeared with a cardboard guillotine in his hands, he was shunned by the crowds as well as politicians from both sides of the aisle, who accused him of incitement.
Not going away
Unlike Lehman-Wilzig, Ori Kol – a social activist who has been attending the weekly protests from the start – doesn’t see the movement folding anytime soon. “If anything, I’m convinced that if the police recommend indicting Netanyahu, it will only gain momentum,” says Kol, 25. “Our goal is for him to step down,” he adds, “and he’s already made it clear he will not do that if the police recommend an indictment. So we will continue protesting.”
Kol says he wasn’t disappointed by the fact only a few hundred demonstrators showed up for the rally in Jerusalem last Saturday night. “Let’s remember it’s not the easiest thing to bring right-wing demonstrators out to the streets to demonstrate against Netanyahu, especially on a Saturday evening in the middle of the winter,” he says. “The fact that it happened at all is an achievement.”
Since the protests began in November 2016, the two main leaders have been Eldad Yaniv, a well-known anti-corruption crusader, and Meni Naftali, the former chief caretaker of the prime minister’s residence who rose to fame after suing Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, for abusive behavior toward him and other household staff. He won the case and also prevailed in an appeal.
Despite their success in bringing Israelis out to the streets week after week, Prof. Tamar Hermann – a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute – isn’t convinced much will come of it.
“This is not yet a movement as I see it, but rather a phenomenon,” she says. “These protesters have no clear agenda, no real leadership and no sense of identity. There are many among them who are protesting corruption, but there are many more who are protesting Netanyahu in general, and there is no consensus about the primary goal.”
Most of the protesters, she adds, belong to the privileged classes, which is not a good omen. “Normally, protests succeed when people feel there is something personal in it for them or when they are very angry,” she says. “I’ve been to some of the protests and I just didn’t feel there was enough anger there to keep it going.”
Despite the huge number of Israelis taking to the streets during the social protests of 2011, the conventional wisdom is that the movement failed to achieve its goals. Hermann contests this. “I tend to give more credit to this movement than others do,” she says. “It succeeded in changing the discourse about our national priorities, giving social issues much more visibility. In the past, they had always been overshadowed by security issues.”
In addition, she notes, two of the leaders of the 2011 protests – Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli – were both able to trade on their popularity to enter the corridors of power, getting elected into the Knesset with the Labor Party in 2013.
Lehman-Wilzig agrees, noting that another major effect of the last big protest movement six years ago was the creation of two new political parties that were both successful in targeting the middle class: Yesh Atid and Kulanu. “And at the very least,” he adds, “there has been some moderation in the rise of housing prices since then.”
Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes the current protests can only be considered a success if they hurt the popularity of the ruling Likud party in the polls.
“If we continue to see a decline and Netanyahu becomes more of a liability than an asset for the party, there will be pressure for him to step down,” Wolfsfeld says. “If and when that happens, we can say the protests were effective.”
Shaffir, today a rising star in the Labor Party (part of the Zionist Union alliance), has made a point of attending the recent protests in Tel Aviv. “To me, there is a direct connection between the 2011 protests and what is happening today,” she says. “In both cases, citizens have taken to the streets because they believe their contract with the government has been breached.”
What will need to happen for the protests to end? “They won’t end until this government has been replaced,” she declares.