Contempt of the Government Is the Last Thing Uniting Israelis

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Coronavirus in Jerusalem, 2020.
Coronavirus in Jerusalem, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Israel is on the brink of mass civil disobedience. Actually, this is already happening.

In 2015 President Reuven Rivlin delivered the so-called tribes speech, in which he stated that Israel is divided into four groups: secular Jews, national religious Jews, Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and Arabs. These tribes can, of course, be further divided, into subtribes and clans.

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The coronavirus crisis is a good example of this phenomenon. Every tribe is a law unto itself these days. The Arab community celebrates at big weddings; the Haredim are unwilling to give up prayers in synagogues and study at the yeshivas. Part of the secular public, the young people in particular, goes to celebrate at parties, chill out at bars and cafes and hang out on the beach, without maintaining proper social distance and without masks. And, of course, there’s the weekly demonstration in front of the prime minister's residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, calling for his resignation.

What unites all the tribes is their failure to obey directives, and their demonstrative and contemptuous disregard of government decisions. The motto of the hour is: Everyone can do as they please.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is well aware of this. He sees the sights and hears the voices and accepts them. He is afraid that if he orders radical measures such as a total lockdown – with is undoubtedly necessary, thanks to the lawless behavior of the public – he will be seen as an empty vessel. He realizes that he and his government will decide, the public will ignore them and violate their decision, and the police won’t enforce it, as is happening already.

This week Netanyahu, who is flying to Washington to sign peace treaties with the UAE and Bahrain, decided – only after one of his ultra-Orthodox ministers resigned – to impose a comprehensive lockdown. But only time will tell if the public will follow his instructions.

That’s why Netanyahu zigzagging and changing of his own directives are not only due to his character traits and conduct, to which we’ve become accustomed – his hesitation, endless discussions far into the night, caving in to pressure, centralization of power, exclusion of others, incompetence and micromanagement style. It’s also because the damage to his image of being helpless is diminished when instructions for waging the battle against the coronavirus are “soft,” such as declaring certain cities and neighborhoods “red.” And they too are ignored. It's clear that his decisions are purely political, aimed at pleasing his base and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

An Israeli interlocutor once heard from a senior Egyptian defense official why President Hosni Mubarak decided to resign rather that instructing his security forces and army to fire at demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring of 2011. He explained that Mubarak realized that the Egyptian Army, with its mandatory service – meaning that it is in effect the people’s army – would refuse an order to fire at brothers and other family members. Mubarak realized that his battle was lost and resigned.

The end of political, economic and social crises (and at present health-related ones as well) is determined by circumstances and by the nature of the government involved. Dictatorial regimes tend to massacre demonstrators in order to suppress protest, as Syrian President Bashar Assad has done. But even in tyrannical regimes, the rulers make sure not to push too far.

The regime of the clerics in Iran is a clear example of restraint of violence: The regime uses force to suppress the demonstrators or strikers, and uses live ammunition, but makes every effort to limit the number of victims. The same is true of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who realizes that he would do well not call for opening fire on those demonstrating against him.

In democratic regimes, the end of crises is marked by the leader’s resignation or holding an early election. In Israel, Netanyahu is trying to initiate a new model for managing the ongoing crisis. He is dragging his feet and trying to gain time. Resigning, if only because of his failure in the battle against COVID-19 (not to mention his corruption trial), doesn’t enter his mind. Moving up the election is something he’s already tried three times. He failed in his efforts to form a Haredi-right-wing government, and was saved from being sent home only because Kahol Lavan, led by Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, and the Labor Party crawled into the coalition.

In Israel, the option of suppression by the military, the Shin Bet security service or the police and firing on a crowd doesn’t exist, even in theory. At least not at this stage. Netanyahu knows that the Israel Defense Forces wouldn’t do it, nor would the police, even if they are making every effort to disperse the Balfour protesters and make their lives difficult.

That’s why Netanyahu is willing to accept the disobedience, in the knowledge that there is no possibility of removing him from office. It’s clear to everyone that he will not fulfill his part of the rotation agreement with Gantz. The newspapers are full of wishful thinkers, as well as calculators of possible Knesset seats and legal astrologers, who want to believe that Netanyahu is about to fall. But a superficial perusal of the polls indicates that even if there were to be an election soon – and Netanyahu doesn’t want one now, due to coronavirus crisis and the strengthening of his rival and nemesis Naftali Bennett – the chances of forming a coalition without Netanyahu are slim.

The only chance of that would be if all the anti-Netanyahu parties, on the left and the right, unite. That was possible after the second round of elections in September 2019, but Avigdor Lieberman refused to be seen in the company of the Arab Joint List, even for a one-time mission of removing Netanyahu.

According to the polls, there is now a majority that wants to see the premier leave his office. But will Bennett, whose star is rising due to the coronavirus, and Lieberman ever agree to join the Joint List’s Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi? That’s very doubtful.

So, in brief, we are doomed to continue to mark time, without any real change on the horizon. Perhaps we have to reach the conclusion that the problem is not the politicians and not Netanyahu, but the divisiveness and ingrained stagnation of Israeli society, where every tribe sticks to its opinions and seizes on the only common denominator: great contempt for the government and its decisions.

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