Battling Complacency and Fatigue, Israeli Protesters Dream About the Day After Netanyahu

Some have concluded that now is the time to enter politics and are stressing transparency, integrity, the principles of the Declaration of Independence and a clear voice for women

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Anti-Netanyahu protesters carry torches as they march through Jerusalem, December 12, 2020.
Anti-Netanyahu protesters carry torches as they march through Jerusalem, December 12, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A lot has changed since a retired general, Amir Haskel, sat down outside the prime minister’s residence over six months ago and ignited one of Israel’s largest protest movements ever. During the first few months, the activists at the protest camp on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street would cross the road to hide under a bit of shade, while now they position their plastic chairs in the Jerusalem cold to find a spot of sunshine.

But the weather is the least of their problems. Along with recent successes comes the threat of a weaker protest spirit, whether because of the feeling that Benjamin Netanyahu’s end is near as prime minister or because of exhaustion or, yes, the Jerusalem cold. The protests have faded in recent weeks.

The drop in the number of demonstrators, along with the coming Knesset election, have gotten the main activists to do some soul-searching. Some have concluded that now is the time to enter politics themselves and have founded a party, while others are trying to push original political initiatives or are developing a new sociopolitical framework.

All are dreaming about “the day after Bibi” and admit that former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who has left Netanyahu’s Likud to form a new party, isn’t the alternative they’ve been dreaming of.

Still, despite the cries of joy by some right-wing journalists, the protests against Netanyahu are a long way from disappearing. Nearby Paris Square may not be as packed, and the demonstrations disperse earlier and more quietly than normal, but thousands still show up every week on Balfour Street and thousands more protest all over the country at hundreds of intersections and bridges.

A protest tent outside the prime minister's residence, July 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

This week protesters from the Crime Minister movement managed to surprise the police and reach the residence before the police had time to block the nearby streets. The demonstrators positioned themselves across from the big black curtain set up at the entrance to the compound – a curtain symbolizing Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and detachment – and built campfires on the street. Six protesters were arrested.

The activists view last week’s dissolving of the Knesset and the calling of the March 23 election as a victory for the demonstrations. “The spirit of the protest is what shaped the public awareness and also the Knesset members’ awareness,” says Costa Black, a leader of the Kumi Yisrael (Arise Israel) protest group.

Ehud Barak again?

But again there’s the fear, especially among the hard core of veteran protesters, that the revolution will end with the rise of Sa’ar – along with the almost total erasure of the Israeli left.

“Nothing can be done, the public is right-wing,” Haskel says. “It may not be my dream, but I know where I stand. It’s clear to me that the worst problem is Netanyahu; after we move him out we’ll deal with the other things.”

While Haskel says he doesn’t intend to enter politics, other key activists say that now is the time. A few weeks ago, a number of activists – with well-known computer scientist Ehud Shapiro at the helm – formed a party called the Democratic Party. Some big-name activists, including attorney Barak Cohen, Sadi Ben Shitrit, Ishay Hadas and Haim Shadmi, have already announced they’re joining.

Along with extreme care to preserve transparency, their integrity and the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the party charter promises a female majority in all its institutions. Ben Shitrit says a woman will head the party, while its Knesset slate will be chosen in an open primary.

A protest by the Pink Bandana movement, Jaffa, October 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The activists say they’re forming a new party in light of their bitter experience with the leaders of the social protests in the summer of 2011 who entered politics. In the same breath, they promise they won’t run if they aren’t sure their party has a chance to pass the 3.25-percent electoral threshold.

“If I realize that there’s no chance, I won’t even vote for us,” Ben Shitrit says.

Other initiatives, some more original than others, are also blooming. Some are a kind of political joke to get rid of Netanyahu.

Amir Hermoni, a veteran anti-corruption protester, has been wandering around in recent weeks with signs saying “Ehud Barak for one year.” He’s recommending that the former prime minister make a comeback on behalf of all parties that oppose Netanyahu. But it would only be for one year, just to stabilize Israeli politics. The 78-year-old Barak has promised to resign after a year and clear the stage for new voices.

Hermoni believes that Barak is the only person who can prevent Netanyahu from eking out another close election victory. Amram Zehavi, another veteran activist, is promoting a nonpartisan initiative to legislate a two-term limit for Israel’s prime ministers.

Generation gap

Haskel proposes two directions for action between now and the election. The first – until the party slates are put together – is to pressure the parties to keep out candidates under investigation or suspicion, or who have already been indicted. The second – after the slates are submitted – will include a campaign to raise turnout among voters who traditionally spurn Netanyahu.

For example, at the demonstration Friday, Haskel’s Ein Matzav movement allowed right-wing activists who are against Netanyahu to share the stage.

Unlike the older generation, which is busy trying to remove Netanyahu, the younger activists are planning for the longer term and hope the 2020 protests will serve as a foundation for a new and powerful sociopolitical movement.

“The older generation finds it hard to understand our need for change on issues such as the climate crisis or the demand for distributive justice,” says Maya Rimer, a leader of the Pink Bandanas, one of the protest groups that has sprung up in the last few months.

“There’s a generation gap here. They’re reformers and we’re revolutionaries. The older people want a prime minister who isn’t corrupt, while I want a different system, a different society. It’s not just that we’re shouting ‘it won’t end even when Bibi quits.’”

A retired general, Amir Haskel, being removed by the police from a protest camp outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

As far as Rimer is concerned, Netanyahu “hasn’t been the target at any stage. All he has been is the blockage that has to be removed to start cleaning out the rotting pipes.”

Rimer says the Democratic Party is a good idea, but she doesn’t plan on entering politics. For now, she’s busy creating a network of activists, beginning with the Israeli branch of the Extinction Rebellion stressing the climate crisis and the Ethiopian Israeli community protesting police violence.

“I also want to ask what’s the connection between us and Ahuvia Sandak,” Rimer says, referring to the 16-year-old boy who died last week when the car he was in flipped during a West Bank car chase with the police, who suspected Sandak of throwing stones at Palestinians. “How can I put aside my political affiliation and hold an olive branch out to those who are pained by his death?”

The differences are also reflected in the dreams of what will happen the day after Netanyahu. While Haskel says he’ll go home to his house in Yavneh south of Tel Aviv, Rimer says she’s “running a marathon, not a sprint.”

She tells of how at her first demonstration at the prime minister’s residence, she asked an activist what the goal was for him. He said he wanted the “principles of the leaders of the future to be shaped at our marches.”

Rimer agrees with him. “Our ability to fashion something new is what will shape the future, and if along the way we have to pass through some more darkness, we’ll get through it,” she says.

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