Benjamin Netanyahu and his confidants have been busy for the past few months crafting a narrative: The prime minister’s political rivals are inciting against him and plan to hurt him physically. As part of the effort to reinforce this argument, the most protected person in the country – who is also one of the most protected leaders in the world – filed a complaint with the police against individuals who posted calls to use violence against him on social media. Some of these calls barely received any attention until Netanyahu excavated them from the depths of Facebook and shared them with his millions of followers.
Even though this was a cynical political maneuver, aimed at portraying Netanyahu as a victim, there is a disturbing kernel of truth in it that needs to be addressed honestly. Over the past year, the public conversation among Netanyahu’s opponents has been radicalized. The political crisis and the three general elections in succession, the indictments and Netanyahu’s verbal attacks on law enforcement and the institutions of the state and democracy have contributed to this. But what contributed the most was the egregious and methodical incitement campaign he has been waging for years against his political opponents and their voters.
Israeli leftists and liberals feel persecuted in their own state, political orphans. They are subject to threats, slander on social media and even physical assault by right-wingers – as we have seen in past weeks – and in more than a few cases, their livelihoods have been in danger due to their political views.
All this, however, must not be used to justify incitement or violence against Netanyahu, his family or any of his cabinet ministers or supporters.
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After the new government was established with Benny Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party, a deep sense of betrayal was added to the growing anger and frustration of Netanyahu’s opponents. More than a few Israeli liberals are beginning to believe that they are living in a dictatorship and compare Netanyahu to former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But despite Netanyahu’s flagrant attacks on Israeli democracy, that is not the case.
The political violence in Israel has so far come from the right. Evidence of this can be found in the country’s cemeteries. In the demonstrations of the past few weeks that turned violent, too, the attackers were from the right and their victims from the left. There is no symmetry, no extremists on both sides. Netanyahu’s speech claiming that the protesters against him spread diseases cannot be treated the same way as a post on social media by an ordinary citizen calling the prime minister a dictator.
Does that mean there’s no risk of violence from the liberal camp? The security around Netanyahu makes it nearly impossible to hurt him, but could the increasingly extreme talk by his opponents drive a desperate person to try anyway, or to attack a right-wing politician not protected by such massive security detail? Anyone who says such a scenario is impossible is irresponsible.
The grassroots protest against Netanyahu is legitimate and inspiring and the demonstrations against him, which are spreading throughout the country, are among the most meaningful social and political developments here in recent years. The greatest enemy of this protest movement is violence, because it would give Netanyahu legitimacy to employ much harsher suppressive measures against his political opponents. The demonstrations must remain nonviolent, so that they may continue to spread and expand. That will be the secret to their success.