Israel’s anti-Netanyahu protests, explained

For the past several weeks, thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is facing several political crises — resign.

Over the past month, Israel’s second coronavirus wave has spiraled far out of the government’s control. The country’s economy is tanking, and about a quarter of the workforce is unemployed. Netanyahu’s approval ratings are falling, fast.

Oh, and he’s currently on trial for three corruption charges.

Israel also had an unprecedented three legislative elections in just the past year, each one drawing an inconclusive result. A deal was finally reached after the March election to establish a coalition government between Netanyahu’s party and that of his political rival, Benny Gantz — but the coalition has been criticized since the beginning as being too big and too expensive.

Last week, I wrote that Netanyahu is in an impossible situation, forced to balance reviving the Israeli economy while simultaneously suppressing the second wave of coronavirus cases and rebuilding public favorability.

He still has all of that to manage, but the sustained protests against him are sure to make that job even harder.

What the protests look like

Israelis have been taking to the streets for weeks, protesting Netanyahu and his government for some, or all, of the problems manifesting under his watch. Not everyone is necessarily protesting for the same reason, but many are demanding his resignation.

“The demonstrations really took off over the past two weeks or so due to the economic situation, which is a result of the pandemic and the government’s mishandling of the second wave, which some demonstrators tie all the way back to Netanyahu himself and his ongoing legal difficulties,” Neri Zilber, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, told me.

Protesters have often clashed with police forces, who have been criticized after videos showing police using excessive force against protesters circulated on social media. At least 34 people were arrested in Jerusalem on Tuesday night, where protesters demonstrated outside the Israeli parliament and Netanyahu’s home. Police used water cannons to disperse the crowds.

Dozens of protesters chained themselves together on Wednesday morning and blocked the entrance to the Israeli parliament, but police quickly broke up the demonstration.

Zilber told me that many of the protesters are young people who have been hit especially hard by job losses because of the pandemic. “Young people have to ask themselves what kind of future [they] have in this country. So an economic crisis, coupled with a lack of faith in the political class, given all their missteps of recent months, also add into that,” Zilber said.

Netanyahu’s current government has been controversial since the beginning

Netanyahu has been prime minister for 11 straight years (and 14 years total), but his most recent election was messy, to say the least.

Under Israel’s parliamentary system, parties with similar political leanings form coalitions to achieve a majority of seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. That didn’t happen in any of the three elections held over the past year, which is why new elections kept being held.

In March, Netanyahu’s Likud party and other right-wing parties won 58 of 120 total seats, while Gantz’s Blue and White party and center, left, and Arab parties won a total of 55 seats, leaving both potential coalitions unable to claim a majority.

Gantz and Netanyahu are political rivals, and Gantz originally vowed to form a government that excluded Netanyahu. But as the pandemic threatened to plunge the world into crisis, Gantz agreed to form an emergency coalition with his political opponent.

After weeks of negotiations, the terms were finalized in late April: Netanyahu and Gantz would rotate terms as prime minister, with Netanyahu starting off and Gantz taking over after 18 months. The government was sworn in on May 17.

But the coalition government — and Netanyahu’s reelection as prime minister — has not been very well-received.

Yael Aronoff, the Serling chair in Israel Studies at Michigan State University, told me that since Israel is a parliamentary democracy with several major political parties, Netanyahu only averages about 25 to 30 percent of the vote in each election — so there’s “always an underlying critique of him from many directions for many reasons and an exasperation with him on many fronts.”

The government coalition in particular has been lambasted by critics since day one for its large size and steep cost, and for Netanyahu’s initial insistence on addressing issues other than the pandemic, like annexing the West Bank (which ended up not happening).

The government is set to cost Israeli taxpayers 900 million shekels ($254 million in US dollars) over the next three years. The taxpayer money will fund personal offices, salaries, and other benefits — even things like personal drivers and vehicles — for Israeli ministers.

The cost is significantly higher for this government in particular because 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers are seated in the cabinet, compared to the last government’s 21 to 23 ministers. Aronoff told me the heavy cost is especially frustrating for Israelis who are suffering from the economic crisis.

“A lot of people were angry with the bloated government that was established, that was seated in May, and the waste of money with that,” Zilber said. “A lot of people were angry at the fact that the government took its eye off the ball and was dealing with things like annexation or tax breaks for the prime minister or attacks on the judicial system.”

Netanyahu’s incentive to attack his own judicial system stems from his ongoing corruption trial, which began in May. He was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in January, all of which he denies.

Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a former member of Israel’s Knesset, told me that Netanyahu’s trial has sparked public distrust of the prime minister and fear that he is engaged in conflicts of interest or has ulterior motives as Israel’s leader — and that’s only been exacerbated by his pandemic mismanagement.

“Until the coronavirus crisis erupted, it was mainly those Israelis who thought it was inconceivable to have a minister who simultaneously is a defendant in a criminal court case [who were protesting],” Plesner said. “Now a whole new group of Israelis feel the [coronavirus] crisis is [being] poorly run.”

How Netanyahu mismanaged the coronavirus

Before the coronavirus pandemic spun out of control, Israel seemed to have managed it well. To his credit, Netanyahu made the correct moves at the beginning and was able to suppress the first coronavirus wave in the spring.

Before the outbreak had even hit Israel, the government acted quickly, suspending flights from China in January and from additional East Asian countries in February. On March 18, travel to Israel was completely blocked off to all noncitizens.

Israel reported its first coronavirus case on February 21, and within days, the country mandated a 14-day quarantine for travelers returning from Japan and South Korea; mandatory quarantines were extended to all returning travelers on March 9.

In mid-March, as hundreds of people were testing positive daily, Israel’s population of nearly 9 million (think the size of New Jersey) entered a near-complete lockdown, with most businesses and public gathering places forced to close. Israelis were also urged to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

By May, daily numbers of new cases were down to the low double digits — but some severe missteps reversed the pandemic’s course in Israel.

By April 1, when the economy was still on lockdown, Israel’s unemployment rate jumped from 4 percent before the outbreak to 24.4 percent. Between the economic crisis and the successful management of the first Covid-19 outbreak, the government faced pressure from Israelis to reopen the economy, Zilber told me.

Schools reopened, and soon after, more than 1,300 students and 600 staff members became infected and 125 schools and 258 kindergartens temporarily shut their doors, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Another failure was that the Israeli government didn’t take the time it had when the outbreak was controlled to develop a reliable testing and contact tracing infrastructure. Contact tracing, which helps identify who may have come in contact with a Covid-19 carrier and thus may be at risk of contracting the virus, has helped countries like South Korea and Australia contain their respective outbreaks.

Netanyahu delegated most coronavirus decision-making to himself and frequently appeared on primetime television to communicate with the Israelis in hope of winning a political victory by handling the pandemic himself, but that plan ended up backfiring with the aggressive resurgence in cases, Plesner told me.

“The single most important decision that he refrained from taking was an appointment of a sort of professional figure to manage the crisis,” Plesner said.

What this means for Netanyahu

Netanyahu’s problems pose a serious political challenge for him, and, experts say, reveal his weaknesses as a leader.

Netanyahu wanted to win the war against the coronavirus by himself, according to Plesner, because his motivations are usually political, even in times of crisis management. Aronoff said that Netanyahu is also highly suspicious of people, including his own advisers.

He’s also dealing with a severe lack of trust in the government among the Israeli people. An Israel Democracy Institute study published last week found that just 29.5 percent of Israelis trust Netanyahu to manage the coronavirus crisis — down from a high of 57.5 percent in early April.

Respondents were also asked to choose from a selection of six words to describe how they felt about the government’s coronavirus management. The most popular responses: “angry,” “disappointed,” and “alienated.”

Several experts I talked to said that right now, Netanyahu’s main concerns, aside from controlling the pandemic, are remaining in power and staying out of jail.

“I think the biggest factor in determining his political future will be the outcome of the trial,” Mira Sucharov, an Israeli politics expert and political science professor at Carleton University, told me.

Some experts told me that political deadlock in the current government may mean a fourth election could be on the horizon, and whether that happens before or after the conclusion of his trial could be important.

The Knesset is tasked with passing a budget by August 22, which is currently being hampered by political disagreements between Netanyahu and Gantz. Aronoff told me that Netanyahu may capitalize on a failed budget to trigger another election in the hope of winning to prevent Gantz, who is scheduled to begin his rotation as prime minister in November 2021, from taking over.

Plesner told me an election will be triggered within 90 days of the budget deadline if it is not met, which would be the fourth election within a two-year period. He said that could be good for Netanyahu, since the calling of witnesses in his trial won’t begin until January 2021, but he could be hurt by his damaged popularity and the mass protests regardless.

“I think in this kind of situation where he’s on trial during a pandemic, the economy’s going down, there are demonstrations across the country against him, and even internally in the Likud now, rival leaders feel emboldened to challenge him, he’ll certainly be lashing out even more and his suspicious nature will be heightened even more,” Aronoff said. “So we’ll see whether he’s able to maneuver politically as he usually is.”

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