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In the Face of Netanyahu's Threat to Democracy, Israel's Opposition Makes Rare Show of Unity

At Saturday's protest, the speakers were more impassioned than usual, the messages sharper, and the listeners angrier. It could herald a new era in Jewish-Arab relations

Chemi Shalev
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Protesters hold up signs in Tel Aviv on May 25, 2019.
Protesters hold up signs in Tel Aviv on May 25, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Chemi Shalev

It was the renowned English author and essayist Samuel Johnson who famously said: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Johnson’s observation was proven right in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, when the knowledge that Benjamin Netanyahu could soon neuter the Supreme Court and terminate the rule of law concentrated the mind of the Israeli opposition and forced it to show the kind of energy, determination and unity that, had it existed two months ago, might have changed the results of the general election.

An overflow crowd of close to 100,000, which exceeded the most optimistic expectations, came to see the leaders of the opposition parties standing together and speaking in one voice, after trying to avoid each other like the plague during the election campaign.

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From Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz and his partner Yair Lapid — who received the warmest welcome — through Labor’s Avi Gabbay and Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg, all the way to the surprise star of the show, Ayman Odeh of the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al party, the speakers were more impassioned and their message sharper and more aggressive than in the past. Their audience, meanwhile, seemed angrier and more animated than ever, at least by the standards of the mostly well-to-do Tel Avivians who took part. The performance proved the veracity of the traditional right-wing slogan “Only Bibi can” — in this case injecting life into the hitherto moribund opposition.

The demonstration ended the post-election period in which the opposition seemed to be in a coma. Despite the emerging certainty that Netanyahu was about to achieve immunity from prosecution by depriving the Supreme Court of its authority to annul the move — by depriving it of judicial review altogether — his critics displayed an inexplicable apathy, now seemingly dispelled by a single demonstration.

But the importance of the demonstration wasn’t the fact it was held, but rather in the tense 24 hours that preceded it — when a vigorous left-wing campaign on social media compelled the Kahol Lavan organizers to issue a last-minute invitation to Odeh to participate. The vision of a joint Jewish-Arab front — the long-held dream of the Israeli left — suddenly came to life, at least for one night.

It was Odeh’s appearance that electrified the crowd, convincing hundreds if not thousands of left-wing activists not to boycott it because of his absence. The endemic division of the Israeli left, a product of that political wing’s well-known purism and fractiousness as well as the inherent tension in the relations between Arabs and Jews, dissipated into thin air.

Benny Gantz delivers a speech as opposition parties' supporters attend a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 25, 2019.
Benny Gantz delivers a speech as opposition parties' supporters attend a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 25, 2019.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

Gantz proclaimed the establishment of a new party dedicated to preserving Israeli democracy and guarding its institutions, and Odeh responded with a wish “to be a legitimate part of the change.”

Despite the clear knowledge that the right will showcase Odeh’s participation in order to cast doubt on the opposition’s loyalty, Gantz and others promised to stay the course. Let’s wait and see.

It’s too early to determine whether the rare Jewish-Arab collaboration will serve as a binding precedent for the future, or be remembered as a mere one-night stand. Despite the participation of Odeh and a Druze representative (former IDF Brig. Gen. Amal Assad), their constitutents did not take part in the demonstration — though that might change in the future following Odeh’s appearance.

It was by far the most colorful of recent center-left demonstrations, mainly by virtue of the thousands of bright red turbans distributed to protesters in order to remind them, as one of the dispensers told me, “that we don’t want to live in a Turkey.” A large poster of Turkish strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also displayed across from the stage, though some protesters thought the display was “too gimmicky.”

The organizers decided to hold the protest in the courtyard in front of Tel Aviv Museum of Art, perhaps fearing that the adjacent and much larger Rabin Square would seem empty by comparison. Their lack of confidence was mistaken: Thousands lined the streets near the museum, hoping to catch a glimpse or hear a few sentences from the podium.

The older crowd came early and secured a spot inside, but younger Tel Avivians, who arrived fashionably late, had to improvise. On the northeast corner of the museum square, they somehow found a ladder on which to climb into the demonstration area. When the police discovered the breach and closed it, they simply took their ladder to another spot and continued to stream into the already overflowing square.

The natural tendency, born of history and experience, is to dismiss the influence of demonstrations. Only a handful, including the mass demonstration after the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982, as well as the 2011 social protests, have ever swayed Israeli governments to change course. Suffice it to say that Avigdor Lieberman, who is refusing to join Netanyahu’s governing coalition unless his demands are met, has a far better chance of single-handedly stopping Netanyahu running amok to destroy Israeli democracy.

Nonetheless, Saturday night’s demonstration can be seen as a defibrillator that might resuscitate the Israeli opposition. It could revive hope in a center-left that was left despondent by Netanyahu’s victory in the April 9 election. It could, despite the obstacles, herald a new era in Jewish-Arab relations, which could have far-reaching ramifications for politics and society as a whole.

In a best-case scenario, it will be remembered as a night in which a pledge made 20 years ago this month by Ehud Barak in his 1999 election victory speech finally came true. Barak, who took part in Saturday’s protest as an ordinary citizen, had promised Israelis “the dawn of a new day," which, in a best-case scenario, has finally arrived.