The right-wingers are fuming. They’re calling the demonstrators on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street and in Caesarea a gang of anarchists, PLO supporters, Bibi haters, inciters to murder, tramplers of democracy, “spreaders of disease” and “coronavirus incubators” – two antisemitic terms created by Benjamin Netanyahu. They say 10,000 protesters are nothing, barely a quarter of a Knesset seat, so all these demonstrators aren’t endangering the prime minister. They’re nothing.
The surprising part is that “progressive” circles on the left are also profoundly derisive of the protests. They say they’re unsuccessful, haven’t changed the Israeli division into tribes, and the people who attend are “anyone but Bibi” types. They say there aren’t any Likudniks or kippa wearers there, only frustrated Meretz voters. That’s why the protests don’t represent any change and are pointless.
The problem is, one person has quite a good understanding of campaigning, elections and demonstrations, and he’s of an entirely different opinion. His name is Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bibi has a good recollection of the first major protest, which took place three and a half weeks ago on Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. It was organized by self-employed people whose businesses had collapsed. At the end of the demonstration a group of protesters blocked Ibn Gabirol Street and clashed with the police.
Bibi started to sweat. He realized that this demonstration had released the genie from the bottle. There were 20,000 participants, not 10,000 as reported at the time in the media.
Four days later another major protest got underway, this time in front of the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street. Then the demonstrations continued in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem until the high point this past Saturday night: Many thousands at hundreds of intersections and bridges throughout the country, 15,000 to 20,000 on Balfour Street (not 10,000 as reported in the newspapers), thousands in front of Bibi’s private home in Caesarea and thousands more in Tel Aviv’s Charles Clore Park.
Netanyahu kept track of these demonstrations moment by moment. He saw how the number of protesters was gradually increasing, and how determined they were to show up every week. He understood very well that they and only they were endangering his job, so he attacked them hysterically, in the middle of a cabinet meeting – which proves the importance of the demonstrations.
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He planned a general lockdown to prevent any further demonstrations; he tried but failed. That’s why he sent in his bulldog, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who instructed the police “to prevent protests for fear of the coronavirus,” but he has also failed for now.
Netanyahu understands very well that every person who comes to the demonstrations represents thousands. After all, the protesters are doing this at their own expense, on their own time and at their own risk. There are no buses and no funding. And because these are demonstrators who expect nothing in return, just to see Bibi leave Balfour Street, they’re very dangerous.
Several people have told me they don’t believe that the Likudniks have seen the light and will suddenly vote for someone other than Bibi. That’s why there won’t be any change.
I told them they don’t understand politics. To win an election, you don’t have to change the minds of all of Bibi’s supporters or the average supporter. You have to convince the margin, the members of the soft Likud who will conclude that it’s impossible to have a leader accused of bribery or an attempt to stifle freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate. For this margin, the protests provide an impetus that helps them decide: This time not Bibi.
The voters on this fringe represent three to four Knesset seats. The moment they go from Bibi to the center bloc, he’ll lose the election.
That’s why Netanyahu decided not to submit a one-year budget Sunday. He was afraid Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan would oppose it, the government would fall and we’d have another early election. Then the demonstrations would really intensify, the Likud margin would abandon him, he’d lose and go home.
That’s why he’s so nervous. That’s why his words in the cabinet were so crazy and untrue. That’s why he’s sweating.