The past few months have seen an unprecedented uprising against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, owing to rapidly rising unemployment rates and mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. Protestors have been gathering at Netanyahu’s residences and demanding that he resign.
Many claim that while the government was initially able to control the spread of the coronavirus, it was too quick to reopen the economy, which led to a more devastating second wave of cases and ended up only hurting small businesses and employment even more. The crashing down of the economy and public healthcare system is touted as evidence of a selfish government which is too distant from the interests of its citizens.
Additionally, Netanyahu is facing trial for charges of corruption. Though the charges first began to surface back in 2016, the indictment came last November. On top of that, it is being alleged that Netanyahu is trying to leverage the pandemic to delay court hearings. In light of the corruption charges, calling Netanyahu “Crime Minister” has emerged as a popular slogan at the protests.
The protests seem to be mostly organised and led by Israeli leftists, who hold up black flags representing their anti-Netanyahu, anti-corruption and pro-democracy stance. Some protestors have also taken to dressing up in space-themed costumes, in response to a comment by Netanyahu’s son calling the protestor’s “aliens.”
The biggests protests are those held regularly outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem and his private home in the high-profile neighbourhood of Caesarea. The police presence at the protests has been heavy; clashes and arrests are common. Small international protests in support of the ones in Israel have been organised in the United States and Britain.
The protests usually bring a mixed crowd of those protesting corruption charges and business In terms of demographics, some have noted that religious Israelis and Israeli Arabs have been a minority presence in the protests, perhaps the former due to political leanings and the latter due to marginalisation and disenfranchisement. At the same time, the protests are being admired for bringing together citizens across political lines, religious beliefs, and ages, as well as the sight of many families attending protests together.
The supposed political leanings of the majority of the protestors is the key argument Netanyahu has given while dismissing them, calling them “anarchists,” while also reportedly accusing local media of giving them more coverage than they deserve. He has also denied the allegations of corruption levelled against him.
There have been many reports of counter-protests by right-wing groups, often alongside the anti-Netanyahu ones. Supporters of Netanyahu, attempted to ram a car into a protest, called protestors “germs”, pepper sprayed and attacked them with bottles and clubs. For now, the courts seem to be protecting the Israelis’ rights to freedom of speech and to protest from appeals to curtail the protests in any manner.
There is speculation regarding whether resignation is the “right” demand, since it seems unlikely that someone like Netanyahu will ever follow through on that. But the people of Israel are out in the streets in the thousands. They are called aliens or anarchists all day but denial is a facade that can only last for so long.
Netanyahu is now the longest serving prime minister of Israel. He started the new term when his right-wing Likud party signed a coalition deal with Benny Gantz led Blue and White Party which provisioned 18 month long terms for both of them. Gantz’s term is to begin from November 2021 and some analysts predict that Netanyahu might hold early elections to deny prime ministership to Gantz and in the process, delay Israel’s next budget.
The biggest ally of Netanyahu so far in his political career was his luck which finally seems to desert him. He might be thinking that the protests can be waited out and accountability can be avoided. However this time, his political instinct and survival skill may come up short in the face of determined opposition from the common citizens of Israel.