Thousands of angry demonstrators draped in Israeli flags beat drums, blew whistles and chanted “Bibi get out!” as they marched in the square adjacent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence on Saturday night.
But unlike the previous weekly demonstrations opposite Balfour Street over the past eight months, this protest struck a new and unique tone. Three days before Election Day, it had morphed into a campaign rally that not only denounced the country’s leader, but urged the public to vote against him.
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The protesters who had devoted countless Saturdays to voicing their opposition to the current government were anticipating the opportunity to bring their frustration to the ballot box and vote in Tuesday’s election.
“This is the time!” exclaimed activist Or-ly Barlev from the stage set up in Paris Square. “We haven’t exerted all this energy over the past year in order to blow it at the last minute!”
Mingled with the signs accusing Netanyahu of multiple sins were banners for oppositional political parties, primarily Meretz and Labor – who both sent prospective lawmakers to appear at the event – as well as signs proclaiming the theme of the event: “It’s in our hands now!” and “There’s no way I’m not going to vote!”
A massive, meters-long blue and white banner was held aloft by the marchers so it would be visible from the sky, bearing the message: “March 23 – we all go to the polls.”
The event drew more participants than any anti-Netanyahu protest since July, with the crowd estimated at anything between 20,000 to 50,000 – a sharp upturn from the dwindling numbers of recent weeks.
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“It felt completely different from the usual Balfour protests,” said Gali Lupo Altaratz, 46, a cooking teacher from Kfar Sava who has taken part in the demonstrations since July.
“Over the summer, the protests were huge and furious, everyone was yelling for change,” she said. “We were saying ‘No’ to Bibi as loudly as we could. Then came the second and third lockdowns and the winter: it was raining, it was freezing and very few people were there.
“But this was amazing,” she added. “There was a real feeling of hope, a positive energy – and so many thousands of people were there! I wasn’t used to it and it was really exciting. All of these months we’ve been saying, ‘No, this is who we don’t want.’ And now, finally, we get to say yes to an alternative.”
Spirits were high despite the fact that recent polls have suggested that the fractured nature of the opposition to Netanyahu makes the likelihood of a clear-cut defeat for the prime minister unlikely. Even center-left voters have been telling pollsters they think Netanyahu will survive.
But none of that was visible as the demonstrators – who ranged in age from senior citizens to families with small children – chanted and sang along to the popular musicians who had come to play and support the cause.
“Wow, I haven’t been to a concert all year,” enthused one young woman as she spun and danced happily.
The rally’s emcee, actor Lior Ashkenazi, warned his cheering audience that their enthusiasm and votes would not be enough.
He told the crowd: “You all know two or three people who aren’t sure if they’ll vote, who say ‘What difference will it make?’ Well, those are the votes that will make the difference between a corrupt government and a new, cleaner government. We have to make it our mission not just to go to the polls ourselves but to bring these people with us.”
Crowd members were repeatedly urged by Ashkenazi and others on stage to channel their political passion in other ways as Tuesday’s election draws near: to sign up with political parties to hang posters and advocate near polling places.
The decision of anti-Netanyahu activists to continue protesting right up till Election Day contrasted with the lead-up to November’s election in the United States.
There, political activists determined to defeat President Donald Trump stayed off the streets, choosing to focus their energy exclusively on getting out the vote, phone banking and text messaging. This was partly because of COVID-19 fears, but also because, strategically, it was felt that large, chaotic demonstrations would only serve Trump’s cause, not weaken it.
But Israeli activists clearly felt otherwise and that by continuing the protests, they would energize the members of the base most motivated to vote against Netanyahu.
Lupo Altaratz contended that the protests had been helpful in bringing new blood into electoral politics.
“It’s happened relatively late in the game, but there has been a push when it comes to real organizing ahead of the election,” she said. “I think many of the Balfour protesters are also out there volunteering for the parties in the center-left bloc – I know many of them contacted me. Maybe it hasn’t been enough, but it’s happening, and there’s much more grassroots political activity happening than in the previous rounds of elections. The protests have really woken people up and helped them understand that, like the slogan says, it’s all in their hands now.”