Protests in Israel don’t bring down the government. But they can have a galvanizing and cumulative effect which eventually make a prime minister’s position untenable. That was eventually the case with Golda Meir, who despite winning the election after the Yom Kippur War, realized she had no choice but to resign shortly after. The same happened with Menachem Begin after the First Lebanon war and Ehud Olmert after the second. The thousands in the streets, night after night, may not have directly caused these resignations, but they certainly eroded their leaders' legitimacy.
Benjamin Netanyahu is not of the resigning type, but he is acutely aware of how the public feels about him. After all, he had quietly, behind the scenes, helped orchestrate and fund the reservists' protest after the Second Lebanon war against Olmert.
Exactly nine years ago, when the first tents went up on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and very quickly, thousands began gathering in Israeli cities to demand social and economic justice, Netanyahu sensed the anger of the middle-classes and understood that it could fatally damage his prospects of reelection. Within weeks, Netanyahu found a way to draw away the media's attention from the protests. He reversed his policy (and long-held beliefs) against a lopsided prisoner exchange with Hamas and suddenly signed the 1,027-for-one Shalit deal. The media could deal with nothing else, and the protests were starved of attention, dwindled, and never managed to stage a comeback.
Netanyahu’s popularity ratings, which in August 2011, at the height of the protests, had plummeted to just 29 percent, were back up at 51 by the time Gilad Shalit was out of Gaza. The Israeli social justice protestors had been using similar chants to those heard in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, when Egyptians toppled Hosni Mubarak’s rule. But the end result was more similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement – it made a lot of noise but ultimately failed to bring change.
Netanyahu in July 2020 is back where he was nine years ago. His popularity is plummeting once again. In a Channel 13 poll published on Sunday night, 61 percent of Israelis said they were dissatisfied with his leadership in the Coronavirus crisis. An even higher proportion, 75 percent, were unhappy with his government. If elections were held today, the coalition’s parties, currently holding seventy Knesset seats, would lose 13 and with that their majority.
Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht pointed that most of the protesters on Saturday's coronavirus economic protest in Tel Aviv were of the “just not Bibi” camp. The turnout was impressive, but these are still members of the secular, center-left middle-class, people who didn't voted for Netanyahu or any of the parties who supported him in the election.
They're the obvious suspects when it comes to anti-Netanyahu protests. If the protests continue with just them, Netanyahu is safe. They're the same people who came out in 2011. But if protests spread to Netanyahu's base, this could be a pivotal moment. The first signs of widespread unrest were seen on Saturday night in places far from Tel Aviv, in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that protested the heavy-handed lockdown on their areas.
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Netanyahu should be worried. Unlike in 2011, when the protests were about the high cost of living (an ongoing problem but not a desperate one), the fear of financial free-fall is far deeper, and cannot be easily blotted out by an orchestrated distraction. West Bank annexation, which has already been forgotten, failed to motivate Israelis, and only four percent said in polls that they believe annexation is a national priority. Last week, Netanyahu tried to provoke a coalition crisis over a parliamentary commission to investigate Supreme Court judges’ conflicts of interest. It failed to ignite, and made Netanyahu seem even more detached from the concerns of his citizens.
Unlike the social protests of 2011, which relied on media attention for oxygen, everything is COVID right now, meaning these protests are self-sufficient. Netanyahu has no silver bullet to solve this problem, and nothing with which to deflect the media’s attention. Not even Iran. The mysterious explosions in Tehran and Natanz have been tersely reported in the Israeli media but hardly dominated the agenda.
The virus was politically useful for Netanyahu, as long as he seemed to be in control. He used the impression that he was “managing things” to bully Gantz into his coalition. But now it turns out that he isn’t managing, and that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. Netanyahu has lost control, not just of the pandemic, but of the agenda as well. If the protests continue to spread, it could be the unexpected factor that brings about the end of his long rule.