Fitting a Rabin Square peg into an all-around hole: 6 things to know for July 17
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Fitting a Rabin Square peg into an all-around hole: 6 things to know for July 17

A rally in Tel Aviv raises the people’s cry over the economic damage wrought by the pandemic, but a bid to make it apolitical appears to merely highlight longstanding divisions

Israelis protest for financial aid at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis protest for financial aid at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

1. The protest builds: The attention of the press is turned toward the devastating economic effects of government restrictions meant to ward off the coronavirus, following a large protest by business owners hit hard by the health crisis, and their supporters.

  • As the protest dispersed late Saturday, scuffles were reported between cops and demonstrators trying to block the road, and some took their anger out on a bank’s glass door.
  • While anger over the government’s response to the virus and its economic effects have been widespread, the events of the last week and the protest appear to mark a coalescence of a series of smaller protests by niche groups into one angry roiling mass, at least as viewed by the press.
  • “The scream,” reads the simple headline atop Yedioth Ahronoth, accompanying a picture showing the scale of the unhappy crowd of some 10,000 at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.
  • “Was there anger at the protest? I think there was. Restrained anger, that broke out in the writing on signs, on the black mask which had ‘we’re sick of the out-of-touch’ written on it, in the decision to show up at the protest, despite the warnings that gatherings result in infections,” writes the paper’s Nahum Barnea.
  • Haaretz calls the rally “the height, so far, of a protest movement that has been gathering steam in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to manage the coronavirus crisis and to his and his cabinet’s disconnect from the real lives of Israelis.”
  • Even ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Ne’eman, which is controlled by the Degel Hatorah faction that is within the government, leads off with the protest, under the headline “Economic anger in the streets: ‘This is a declaration of war.’”
  • And even Israel Hayom, seen as a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, notes that “the large turnout at Rabin Square was a sign of widespread discontent with the government’s policies.”

2. So how bad is it? Walla news quotes a circus owner who had just started to get back on his feet after four months of closure when he suddenly got word he would have to shut down again.

  • “I have three kids and I don’t know how I will provide for them. I don’t know what to tell my wife, my workers, my sound tech. I don’t have money to eat. There’s no compensation. I’m not getting any attention from our state. We are despairing. I have paid NIS 10 million in taxes for the last 18 years, and I’m not getting any safety net,” he says.
  • Guy Prizmant, one member of the entertainment industry who spoke at the rally, tells Army Radio that five people from his industry have taken their own lives “because of mental hardship that began with the economic crisis. In other sectors more people have committed suicide.”
  • “The struggle began with the lockdown and has continued with the lack of reasonable compensation,” Channel 13 news quotes one speaker at the rally saying. “We are fighting for the present, for livelihoods, for respect as human beings, and that is not BS.”
  • A nightclub owner tells Haaretz that regulations make it impossible for businesses to survive: “The whole economy is going to collapse if the government doesn’t act. There will be a period of austerity after the coronavirus. Netanyahu’s plan is not enough.”

3. Plan for trouble: Economist Manuel Trajtenberg is harshly critical of the economic plan unveiled by the government, telling Army Radio that “the economic plan is not economic. There’s nothing new there, just panic from the outbreak of a renewed protest. This is like giving first aid to a patient in moderate-to-serious condition.”

  • Kan’s Shaul Amsterdamski writes that the plan looks like an election-year proposal, meaning it’s filled with populist clauses that can end up hurting the economy and individuals in the long run, for instance by encouraging business owners to under-report earnings so they keep getting the handouts.
  • “It’s not enough to give aid, but it needs to be smart aid, that will help people rebound, or find a new path. It needs to be generous and not stingy, since stingy aid will harm the quality of life of many people, will encourage working under the table, enhance gaps and lead to social unrest,” he writes.
  • The Calcalist business daily reports that Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli is expected to oppose the financial aid plan, because of a number of loopholes he found that will leave people in some situations behind, like salaried workers who also gig on the side and whose gig income will be counted against unemployment benefits for their salaried job.
  • “The plan presented by the prime minister is a step in the right direction, but is still lacking. We need to up compensation for the self-employed and commit now to paying them unemployment assistance,” he tells the paper.

4. Apolitical rally or a political rally? The rally was about five times larger than the anti-Netanyahu rallies that have become a Saturday night mainstay, and organizers took pains to stress the nonpartisan nature of the protest.

  • “I’m not here to make a political statement. There are some who are trying to make this about Bibi’s corruption, but I think that’s a mistake,” one participant is quoted telling ToI’s Jacob Magid as a man walked by with a poster reading “corrupt ones go home,” next to a picture of Netanyahu.
  • Kan reports that organizers initially booted people wearing “Crime Minister” T-shirts. According to Haaretz, Yesh Atid activists also made sure not to wear clothes identifying them as members of the party, to keep it apolitical.
  • Nonetheless, in news coverage of the event, a giant Crime Minister poster could be seen in the background, along with a lot of other anti-Netanyahu and anti-corruption signs.
  • Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht writes that the protest was lacking by being too exclusively anti-Bibi, and should the crisis continue, an effort will need to be made to open the tent for right-wingers as well.
  • “The interesting question is whether the coronavirus crisis will be so strong that it will have the strength to break through the tribal divisions, which still underlie the protests or the blind support for the prime minister. For the first time, I actually hope the answer is no,” she writes.
  • Like Hecht, Zman Yisrael’s Amir Ben-David compares the demonstration’s youthfulness to the 2011 socioeconomic tent protests that swept the country, but argues that trying to depoliticize it is a fool’s errand.
  • “The organizers were insistent on fighting for the right of people to say nothing. They are here to give expression to a crisis that nobody is responsible for. They demand to be able to put on a protest with no target,” he writes acerbically.
  • On the other side, Aviah Shklar Hemo writes for Makor Rishon that it’s not right that protests like this are unfairly seen as automatically anti-Netanyahu, but that’s because the right-wing is not showing up: “So long as we avoid the public square, so long as the right does not take responsibility for subjects that are not tied to annexation, the judicial system or representation in the media, we will see how any core issue will swerve from the public common to another guillotine for Bibi.”

5. A star is criticized: The depoliticization efforts ended up centering on singer and “A Star is Born” reality show judge Asaf Amdursky, who kicks up a bit of a storm after being interviewed at the rally by Channel 13 news and saying that Netanyahu needs to go to jail or a mental institution, and criticizing the press for “still stuttering.” Amdursky defends his comments by saying anti-corruption is not a left and right issue, but not everyone buys it.

  • “A sentence like ‘Bibi needs to go to jail or the crazy house’ is a sentence that will alienate 1.35 million people who voted for Bibi but have also been hurt by the coronavirus,” writes Channel 12’s Zion Nanous on Twitter.
  • Meanwhile, some also criticize interviewer Noga Nir Naaman for pushing back against Amdursky, especially given that the channel recently fired some of its top journalists who have been critical of the prime minister.
  • “One frame showing what happens to the Channel 13 presenters when someone speaks directly against Netanyahu,” tweets columnist Doron Rosenblum above a picture of the interviewer and her sidekick trying to argue with Amdursky.
  • Walla critic Amit Slonim writes that Amdursky’s “arrows were not pointed at Balfour, but at the establishment broadcast media,” and that he “decided to say out loud what we all already know.”
  • Israel Hayom points out that some were offended by Amdursky’s comments on behalf of the mentally ill, including Dr. Zvi Fishel, head of the Israel Psychiatrists Union, who wrote that “Amdursky should settle scores with politics at the ballot box and not with stigmatic words that weaken those who are already weak.”
  • In a bit of cancel culture fun, former Channel 13 gossip columnist Gil Mishali writes on Twitter that Amdursky should maybe lose his job as a TV judge for his comments. Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a leader of the protest movement against Netanyahu, responds by saying that he is going to push for Mishali to be fired, after which Mishali clarifies that he was referring to Amdursky’s salty tongue (he had said on live TV that Netanyahu is “fucking us in our heads with his lies”) and not his political position. He also points out that he no longer works for the channel.

6. But what about the violence? The protest was popular enough, though, that even Israel Hayom plays it up along with the complaints of the protesters, though it also highlights the violence by some. The approach appears to take a page out of the playbook of those in the US who criticized Black Lives Matter protests by accentuating the violence and in some cases lack of social distancing to distract from the wider issue at hand.

  • “Afterward, groups of protesters, many of them political activists, blocked roads and fought with police,” the tabloid notes on its front page subheadline.
  • “Rally against government’s failure to address economic woes turns violent,” reads the paper’s headline in its English edition.
  • Kan points out that Likud MK Yoav Kisch posted on Twitter that the economic problems are known, “but we are doing everything to prevent gathering and paying tough prices to stop the virus and then we see pictures from the square yesterday — a mega terror attack on health.”
  • “The gathering of thousands of people will cause one thing: a dramatic rise in infections. This is lawlessness that will hurt everyone, foremost the rehabilitation of the economy that the protesters are rallying for,” tweets Channel 12 analyst Amit Segal.
  • Ultra-Orthodox journalist Yanki Farber shares a number of tweets comparing the police roughing up protesters in ultra-Orthodox areas to a video of protesters breaking the window of a bank in Tel Aviv.
  • Shai Berman, the head of an association of bar and restaurant owners, tells Channel 12 that he is against the violence that marked the end of the rally. “At the same time, it must be said, the writing was on the wall.”
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