Analysis |

Protest Turbulence Threatens to Destabilize Netanyahu – or Israeli Democracy

The prime minister’s hysterical response is fueling and energizing the demonstrations he seeks to subdue

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Protesters calling for Netanyahu's resignation demonstrate near his official residence, Jerusalem, July 25, 2020.
Protesters calling for Netanyahu's resignation demonstrate near his official residence, Jerusalem, July 25, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The protest movement against Benjamin Netanyahu has undergone dramatic changes over the past few weeks. The average age of demonstrators has dropped by decades. The number of protests and participants has multiplied many times over. The protests have been infused with energy, urgency and a newfound willingness to confront police head on, even at the risk of arrest or injury.

The surging protests are a direct outgrowth of the government’s failure to prevent the alarming resurgence of the coronavirus epidemic and, more pertinently, its dismal economic assistance packages. Although most Israelis are suffering from the economic slowdown, younger Israelis, many of them independent contractors, have been hit especially hard. The prospect of insolvency or of being forced to rely once again on parents spurred many of them to take to the streets.

But Netanyahu can only blame himself for supplying the rallying cries and the shots of adrenaline that have galvanized the protests in recent weeks. Netanyahu’s insistence on securing personal tax benefits just as the spread of coronavirus hit renewed peaks sparked waves of disgust and anger. His ludicrous efforts to depict protestors as “anarchists”, coupled with what is seen as overly-zealous police efforts to disperse and arrest demonstrators, brought indignation to fever pitch and sent hitherto indifferent and younger Israelis to protest in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Caesarea and across hundreds of bridges throughout the country.

The demonstrations on Saturday night were not only the largest recorded since the social upheaval of 2011, they also introduced sporadic but ominous attacks on protestors by right-wing vigilantes. The stabbing of a protestor near Beer Sheva, accounts of pepper-spraying from a passing vehicle and reports of premeditated ambushes of demonstrators going home may further energize the protest movement – but also raise the specter of a fatal encounter that could inflame the public and change history in the process. Netanyahu failed to muster thousands of right-wingers to demonstrate in his favor, sending the violent fanatics among his followers to try violence and bloodshed instead.

The appearance of violent, rightwing counterdemonstrators is seen as directly linked to Netanyahu’s incitement. As is his wont, Netanyahu seeks to exploit the protests in order to sow division and strife, rally his troops behind him and shift the public’s focus from his dismal record on handling the epidemic and economic slump to the concocted threat of an undemocratic, left-wing putsch. Like Donald Trump in Portland, Oregon, Netanyahu seeks to cast the protests as a threat to stability, invoking the need for a strong “law and order” measures to put them down.

A cooler and steadier prime minister might have tried to defuse the protests by embracing them, or, at the very least, ignoring them. Netanyahu, however, is not only paranoid by nature and given to bouts of hysteria when confronted by unexpected challenges, he is fighting for his political life and possibly personal freedom as well. He makes mountains out of molehills and by doing so turns the idiom into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Protesters calling for Netanyahu's resignation demonstrate near his official residence, Jerusalem, July 25, 2020.

In and of themselves, the protests lack a mechanism for unseating the prime minister and therefore don’t pose a direct threat to Netanyahu’s continued rule. His own bungling reactions, however, are likely to inflate their size and magnitude to include larger chunks of his own constituency. The protests are already drawing saturation coverage by the media, creating an atmosphere of discontent and instability that compounds the public’s increasing dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s overall performance.

With polls indicating a precipitous drop in Netanyahu’s approval ratings, his commanding lead in election polls has been erased, thwarting his plans for a snap ballot or, at the very least, rendering them a dangerous gamble. With his back to the wall, Netanyahu’s reactions to the demonstrations are bound to escalate, energizing the protests he seeks to subdue.

If they reach a critical mass and incorporate growing numbers of disgruntled Likud voters, the protests could unsettle senior politicians, especially on the right. Netanyahu’s coalition, already strained by tensions with Benny Gantz, could destabilize, threatening Netanyahu personally – and tempting him to disrupt Israeli democracy itself.

Netanyahu’s depiction of the protestors as “Bolshevik anarchists,” together with the unfounded allegations spread by his minions that the demonstrations are spreading coronavirus, are currently being taken as routine political bluster. But they could also prepare the ground for Netanyahu to invoke the emergency powers recently given to him by the Knesset, to shut down the protests by executive fiat and to order police to disperse them with whatever force necessary.

Thus, the protests could lead to a forceful clamp down on the basic right of protest as well as a proliferation of violent and potentially fatal encounters between left and right. The ensuing public rage could bring Israel to the brink of civil war. The fact that Israel is being led by a prime minister in distress, who sees himself as a victim of a nefarious plot and who increasingly seems to have lost touch with reality, makes such doomsday visions into potentially realistic scenarios.

Netanyahu is like a wounded animal now, increasingly backed into a corner and lashing out blindly at his perceived persecutors. As far as he’s concerned, total mayhem, a breakdown of checks and balances and Israelis at each other’s throats may be just what the doctor ordered.

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