Israel Is in the Middle of a Summer of Mass Unrest

Amid this summer’s massive protests, Benyamin Netanyahu’s grip on Israel’s political consciousness began to crack for the first time in a decade. But repairing the damage he’s done to the country’s political landscape will take years.

Israeli protesters at a demonstration in Jerusalem. (Amir Levy / Getty Images)

July was supposed to be a crowning month for Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing. Despite three charges of bribery and corruption, and three election cycles in one year, Netanyahu managed to capture a fourth term as prime minister.

The coronavirus and the ensuing state of emergency were Netanyahu’s lucky charm. They forced a “corona coalition,” a patchwork of right-wing parties and fractured parties from the center-left, including Netanyahu’s rival, former Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White Party broke from their alliance.

The public approved of the government’s management of the pandemic. Infection rates remained steady. A three-week general lockdown saw minimal resistance — despite the government’s approval to track civilians’ cell phones without a warrant.

As infection rates dropped, Israel was set to reopen. As the ultimate achievement, Israel was going to begin annexing the West Bank on July 1, with the blessing of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner.

But a few weeks after the government eased restrictions and Netanyahu told the public, “go, have a beer,” things began to turn.

First, July 1 came and went without the annexation of a single inch of the West Bank. Netanyahu’s allies laid the blame on Trump, who was engulfed by his appalling mismanagement of the coronavirus in the United States. In reality, only 4 percent of Israelis are interested in annexation. Israelis simply don’t have an appetite for it.

Then the infection rates surged again, and unemployment skyrocketed, with almost a million out of work. The government clashed with the Knesset Coronavirus Committee. Netanyahu removed the head of the committee — a member of his own party — and his coalition passed a law that the government could bypass the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in its handling of the coronavirus. This meant that, as in Orbán’s Hungary, the legislative branch became powerless.

To Israelis, sitting at home anxious about their immediate future, watching the governmental chaos, partisanship, and corruption, it was a wake-up call. Rage began spilling onto the street. The Black Flag Movement, a decentralized group of anti-Netanyahu activists began arranging protests, including weekly demonstrations on bridges all over Israel. Restaurateurs, entertainers, and event workers staged demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Social workers, protesting for months for improved working conditions, marched through Tel Aviv.

Along with the growing fury over government’s mishandling of the coronavirus, three events lit the sparks that led mainstream Israelis to coalesce with small protest groups, bringing about a nationwide state of unrest.

First, in late June, retired brigadier general Amir Haskel was arrested at a protest at Netanyahu’s residence. To many Israelis, who are taught to revere military figures, Haskel’s arrest came as a shock. The next day, thousands of sympathizers arrived at the scene in an expression of solidarity.

Then, the host of Israel’s most popular weekly talk show told Minister Tzachi Hangebi that because of the economic downturn, some people have nothing to eat. Hanegbi replied, “Bullshit.” The minister apologizes, but his comment resulted in a doubling of the size of the protests the following week.

Finally, with unemployment figures rising every day, the Finance Committee approved Netanyahu’s request for nine years of tax refunds on expenses at his private home in Caesarea, which was paid for by the state. The move received so much criticism from the Left and the Right that Netanyahu eventually withdrew his request.

For the first time in a decade, Netanyahu’s grip on the Israeli political consciousness began to crack. July, which held so much promise for Netanyahu, ended with him secluded in his private residence in Caesarea surrounded by rows of barricades and riot police.

Younger, More Diverse, and Patriotic

“The protests are much more heterogeneous than those of the living wage protests of 2011,” says Ofer Cassif, a member of the Knesset for the Arab-Jewish Joint List group and also a member of the Hadash Communist Party of Israel. “Unlike those protests, which were about a bourgeois dream of buying a home, these protests are personalized to Netanyahu and the system he built.

For the past twenty years, Netanyahu has not only led a right-wing nationalist agenda but also an economic agenda. He destroyed the institutions — welfare, health, education — that could help people now. Netanyahu is not only corrupt, but he corrupted the system. He and his partners need to go.”

The protests have been attracting a wide range of people, from the older, middle-class protestors who feel like the country is being taken away from them, to younger first-time protestors, who feel the country has forsaken their future. But above all, what has become the focus of all the protesters — beyond calls to defend Israel’s democratic institutions and against government corruption — is the call to remove Netanyahu from office. It’s beyond ideology; it’s personal.

The center of the protests have been weekly Saturday night demonstrations in Paris Square in front of Netanyahu’s government residence on Balfour St in Jerusalem. As the protests have gained participants over the weeks, they’ve come with increased violence.

Images of police deploying water cannons against anti-Netanyahu protesters, knocking some unconscious — which is against police regulations — sent shock waves through the mainstream media. Israelis are used to looking the other way when it comes to police brutality against anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopians, or Palestinians. But these are army-serving, tax-paying middle-class people.

The hardening resistance to the protest movement by police and the government has only increased the size and frequency of protests. If in late June there were about twenty demonstrations on bridges, by the end of July the number was over two hundred bridges. Even Orthodox youth, many of whom are anti-Zionist and habituated to suppression by the police, can be seen marching alongside feminist activists and former members of elite army units.

No Calls for Peace, But Justice

While the Israeli public has no appetite for annexation, it does not see ending the occupation as an urgent matter. Almost exactly twenty years after the collapse of the peace process and more than a decade under Netanyahu’s stagnant government, Israelis have concluded that no viable solution exists.

The Left has decreased in size, the Labor Party is wiped out, and the massive fact of the settlements, along with the dire situation in Gaza, make even the most optimistic activist recognize that a solution isn’t going to come soon.

Yet, the anti-occupation voice within the protests has been growing. With every passing week, more signs of “end the occupation” and “free Palestine” can be seen dotted between “democracy for everyone” and “end government corruption.”

“The occupation is Israel’s biggest sin,” MK Cassif said. “We need to topple Netanyahu and his right-wing agenda in order to restore hope for a sustainable solution.”

The focus of anti-occupation sentiment has been calling for “Justice for Iyad,” a Palestinian with autism whom Israeli police shot dead in the Old City of Jerusalem in late May. Those who shot him have not been charged. The murder came the week George Floyd was murdered by police in Minnesota, and the images of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired Israelis and Palestinians to raise the call for justice.

Many activists said that because of the erasure of the peace process from the Israeli political consciousness, their focus now is on demanding justice and rights for everyone. “If annexation does happen,” one protestor said, “then we need to fight so that every Palestinian gets the same rights as Israelis do. Otherwise, it’s simply apartheid.”

“I have seen more Arabs participating than in any previous nationwide protest,” MK Cassif said. “It’s a testament to the increased political engagement of young people from the Arab community.”

The Palestinian cause, however, is still out of bounds for the administration. A protestor wearing a “free Palestine” T-shirt was detained by police, and Netanyahu and his allies posted a photo of a protestor waving a Palestinian flag.

Netanyahu tweeted, “The cat’s out of the bag, a Palestinian flag in the left-wing protest organized by Ehud Barak (former Israel PM), the partner of Jeffrey Epstein, outside the residence yesterday. A disgrace.”

Attempts by Netanyahu’s allies to smear and repress the protests have been increasing as the weeks go by, not least by Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana. Ohana, a former security operative, was a backbencher in the Likud Party who founded the party’s LGBT caucus. He moved up not only because he was seen as a convenient liberal fig leaf for the right-wing nationalist party, but because of his personal devotion to Netanyahu, whose attack dog he became in the Knesset.

The move paid off. After Netanyahu fired his minister of justice, he appointed Ohana as a placeholder minister. Ohana went straight to work, attacking the legitimacy of the courts ahead of Netanyahu’s trial, floating theories of deep state operators in the State Attorney’s office, and accusing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit of trying to undermine the “democratic process.”

Then, three days before Netanyahu was set to go to trial, Ohana shut down the courts, invoking an emergency act due to coronavirus. The trial was postponed to the end of May, giving Netanyahu unexpected leverage in the coalition talks that were proceeding at the time.

In May, Netanyahu appointed Ohana to be Minister of Public Security. When the protests began, Ohana went from being Netanyahu’s attack dog to his enforcer.

Ohana was recorded telling top police brass to go hard on protestors. He also posed the question of whether the protests could be shut down altogether, which is illegal. With no legal recourse to crack down on the movement, Ohana began to publicly denounce the protestors as “anarchists” and “agents of chaos.”

Netanyahu echoed Ohana’s sentiment, saying protestors were “spreading disease,” and lambasted protestors for defiling “state symbols” after a demonstrator stripped off their clothes atop a menorah monument outside the Knesset.

The smear campaign, together with violent rhetoric online, soon manifested in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Right-wing agitators, mostly from La Familia, a racist football hooligan group associated with the anti-Arab team Beitar Jerusalem, began infiltrating the peaceful protests and attacking from within the crowd. Journalists have been assaulted and their gear destroyed. Members of the group walk around Jerusalem looking for Palestinians to attack.

In late June, a protest in front of Ohana’s house in Tel Aviv became the site of a bloody clash between protestors and right-wing infiltrators — some of whom were seen talking to plainclothes officers — who began beating them with glass bottles and sticks and spraying them with pepper spray.

“The scariest thing was that I realized the police weren’t there to protect me, but the person who lives on Balfour St. (Netanyahu),” said Shay Sekler, a protestor who was left bleeding after an infiltrator smashed a bottle over his head.

The attempt to paint protestors as the extreme “anarchist left” has encountered pushback. Activist Sadi Ben Shitrit, who coincidently is Amir Ohana’s cousin, said, “We have nothing against the right wing. But we have everything against a prime minister who has three criminal counts against him.”

But in Israel, the Right has become Netanyahu. To defend its principles is to protect Netanyahu himself.

Paris Square, Not Tahrir

Paris Square has become the scene of ongoing protest, from weekly mass protests to performances, speeches, and meditation sessions, sometimes seeming less like a political demonstration and more like a festival.

The protests haven’t given rise to ideological debates, such as the viability of Zionism, the occupation, resources, and wealth, which in Israel has been centralized to a few families. They’re fueled by anxiety about the future, rage at the government for mismanaging the coronavirus response, and at the brazen corruption festering at all levels of public life. If protests in the past were about coexistence, these are about mere existence.

The majority of protestors are members of grassroots movements and individuals who’ve been swept up in the wave of summer dissent; however, so far no leadership has emerged that could steer it into a viable political project. Most want to see an end to Netanyahu’s fourteen-and-a-half year reign and his corruption — but many don’t know how to go about it or what to do next.

“He will do anything to keep himself in the prime minister’s chair and out of jail. He will try to bribe the public into going home, and if that doesn’t help, he will crack down on them. He will ruin every institution left standing to save his skin,” Cassif said.

Despite a drop in Netanyahu’s approval ratings, his party is still strong, and most Israelis still see him as the only viable leader in Israel. That’s Netanyahu’s staying power: Netanyahu hasn’t been winning so much as the Left has been losing by putting forth centrist candidates who act like a faded carbon copy of him. Netanyahu also made sure to nip in the bud any alternative to him in his party, putting backbenchers like Ohana in positions of power.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu has been feeling the pressure coming from the protests, vowing to hand out money to families and small businesses, even appointing a Coronavirus Czar — five months into the pandemic.

On the other hand, he’s already toying with the idea of dragging Israel into another election cycle in November. Mixed with a potential third wave of coronavirus, the flu season, and skyrocketing unemployment, this will give him a few months of chaos as his trial begins.

Asked about the political outcome of the protests, MK Cassif said, “Politics is very dynamic. As a reminder, on the eve of the Oslo Accords, the majority was against it. Things can change rapidly. It’s all about the staying power of the protestors.”

However, even if Netanyahu eventually goes, Israelis, who have been in his grip for so long, will have to figure out how to rebuild a political sphere that’s been left in ruins after Netanyahu’s scorched-earth strategy.

As one activist said, “After Netanyahu leaves, we’ll need time to rebuild the institutions he destroyed. It’ll take time for the public to trust the system again.”

It’s too soon to gauge the effects of these protests. Netanyahu might buy time by placating the public with money, escalating the conflict with Hezbollah in the north, or going to elections. Protestors might tire, or, with no political possibilities, might despair. A vaccine or the election of Biden has the potential to stabilize a falling economy and halt annexation dreams.

While the international focus has been on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the debate on one or two states, Israelis are fighting over what kind of country they want Israel to be.

What the protests have unearthed is the divide in Israeli society. One side remains loyal to the ideal of preserving and strengthening what remains of those institutions that, faulty as they are, are based on the concept of equality for all citizens. The other side sees those institutions as obstacles to maintaining the kind of nationalistic and aggressive state posture that can defy the international community.

In a month, Israelis will be celebrating the Jewish New Year, a time of beginnings. With the pandemic, the start of school is still undecided, and without a plan to get the economy back on track, unemployment may rise. In the end, people are going out to demonstrate because they lack something — food, shelter, security, health — and this is what will determine their continued appetite to protest.