On September 3, 2011, something like 400,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the soaring cost of living. Tens of thousands more participated in similar demonstrations around the country that night, in a movement that had begun about three months earlier amid complaints about the price of cottage cheese, but grew to focus on the untenable cost of buying or even renting a home in this country.
The demonstrations were rooted in real, widely felt grievance. They were not directed personally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but against the perceived indifference of his government to ordinary people’s inability to get through the month and keep a roof over their heads. Participants were bitter and angry, but emphatically not violent. Parents brought babies and toddlers to the September 3 rally, the apogee of the movement, which ended in a musical concert.
They did not bring down the government. Within three months, the protesters’ tent camp along Rothschild Boulevard had been relocated and reduced. Key organizers either chose to largely withdraw from the public eye (Daphne Leef) or entered mainstream politics (Stav Shaffir failed to win the Labor leadership last year, lost her Knesset seat and now leads the Green party; Itzik Shmuli failed to win the Labor leadership last year and now sits in the coalition with his near-extinct party as Israel’s minister of welfare).
Almost a decade later, Israel’s cost of living is still high, the price of housing is still untenable, and Netanyahu is still prime minister.
A rising tide of protest, again
Over the last few weeks, vigils that began years ago outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, led by veteran Israelis who charge that he must step down because he is mired in alleged corruption, have been growing steadily. Israelis economically battered by the coronavirus pandemic have sometimes participated. On Thursday and especially Saturday nights, the crowds are now reaching the low tens of thousands — overwhelmingly young people, many of them desperately hostile to Netanyahu, others championing narrow particular causes, some more vaguely seeking change.
Last week, the prime minister’s son vouchsafed that he sometimes shows his father selected clips from these demos, and that dad is amused: “He sees what we all see — these aliens at the protests. It makes him laugh, like entertainment,” said Yair. The younger Netanyahu subsequently backtracked a little; his talk of “these aliens,” he said, referred not to all the protesters, but specifically to “those who are dressed up as aliens and UFOs, those who strip, those who dress up as genitals, those who brandish crude signs, those who put a spaghetti pot on their heads and those dressed up as Spider-Man. There are too many of these, and it’s funny.”
The prime minister himself frequently complains about the “political side” of the demonstrations, including incitement and threats against him and his family. Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, on Tuesday filed a police complaint alleging sexual harassment by protesters, citing sexually explicit slogans and symbols waved at rallies, as well as threats to harm her. “I certainly feel that I have experienced sexual violence,” she said in a phone interview with Channel 12 news on Wednesday, noting “the terrible march of the balloons [shaped like sex organs] and the [social media] post to rape me, which used explicit and crass language.”
But the PM also repeatedly scoffs at the relatively paltry numbers. Perhaps mindful of that huge Tel Aviv demonstration almost a decade ago, and its marginal long-term impact, he sneers that the Jerusalem turnout represents “a quarter of a mandate.”
If 400,000 protesters — enough voters for a dozen Knesset seats — couldn’t achieve strategic change, he appears or at least purports to have concluded, a few thousand disaffected, disunited young people in Jerusalem are hardly going to unseat him.
The Jerusalem protests are indeed disorganized, apparently by design. They are also growing: No longer a quarter of a mandate, they are now maybe a half or even more (calculating that some 35,000 votes brings a Knesset seats these days). Additionally, they are not limited to Jerusalem, but are spreading nationwide.
What Netanyahu can also see, however, is that they are playing out alongside a far wider national dissatisfaction with his government’s handling of the pandemic — with rising majorities in poll after poll saying they are deeply unhappy with his and his ministers’ performance in both the health and the economic fields.
That dissatisfaction, as was the case in 2011, is largely born of personal grievance. A fifth of the country is unemployed. The few hundred shekels that Netanyahu delivered with great fanfare into most Israelis’ bank accounts over the past few days is no substitute for stable employment. And pro-Netanyahu voters — people who wouldn’t dream of joining the Saturday night protests with the “Crime Minister” placards, the Palestine advocates, the giant inflatable phalluses… — are feeling the hardship no less than those who have long opposed him.
The revival of Naftali Bennett
That rising public dismay at the mishandling of the crisis is now also starting to show itself in the polls on voting intentions. The core parties in the coalition — Likud and Blue and White — are losing ground. Many disaffected Israelis are telling the pollsters they’d now vote for parties in opposition: Yair Lapid’s center-left Yesh Atid and, especially dramatically of late, Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina.
Yamina, which won just six seats in the March elections, is now polling as high as 19 — marking an astonishing revival for Bennett, who had lost his seat in the April 2019 vote. As defense minister in the last government, Bennett urged the prime minister to give more responsibility to the army for grappling with COVID-19 and drew up a strategic plan which he claims Netanyahu ignored because of the political rivalry between them, and which he says is near-identical to the one now belatedly being followed by Israel’s recently appointed coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu.
The Likud is not plummeting in the polls, as Blue and White has been doing since its leader Benny Gantz reversed course and opted to sit in government with Netanyahu. But the prime minister’s party is slipping — and, significantly, losing votes to a rival from the same part of the spectrum, a party whose leader does not have corruption allegations swirling around him, whose leader is a champion of the settlement enterprise and also one, incidentally, who refused to partner with the Netanyahu-endorsed Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit.
Netanyahu can reasonably dismiss the surveys showing Bennett’s rise. Our political spectrum is splintered, the electorate is volatile, the pollsters have been repeatedly found wanting.
He can brush off the protesters noisily flooding his Rehavia neighborhood as a mixture of “bizarre phenomena” and leftists.
He may believe that he can still work his political magic — blame the hapless Gantz for the dysfunctional coalition and somehow construct an alternative government, or emerge strengthened from the fourth election he claims not to be seeking. He may yet hold out hope that he can even fashion a political bloc that would pass legislation to stall his corruption trial.
And he may be right. The protests are growing, but he’s weathered worse. He has a potent rival surging from within his own camp, but he’s seen off many of those. Right-wingers battered by the pandemic and its economic fallout aren’t coming to the Crime Minister rallies in any remotely significant numbers, and Bennett isn’t drawing support from the left.
Only if these disparate growing forces come to complement each other, only then will Netanyahu really be in trouble.
This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.