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Over 20,000 gather at PM's residence; organizers say 40,000+

Highest turnout in months at final pre-election protest against Netanyahu

Organizers reflect on previous nine months of rallies: ‘We were able to make a huge protest [movement], but without any means of channeling it’

Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, near the his official residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2021, a few days befire the Israeli general elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/Flash90)
Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, near the his official residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2021, a few days befire the Israeli general elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/Flash90)

In a final mass protest before the March 23 elections, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem on Saturday evening to call for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign.

Protesters from all across the country marched from the Knesset to Jerusalem’s Paris Square, which abuts Netanyahu’s residence on Balfour Street. Organizers of the demonstration said some 15,000 protesters attended at first, later estimating that a total of 40-50,000 were there — the highest turnout in months of weekly protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. Several Hebrew media reports put the number at 20,000 or over.

For nearly nine months, the demonstrators have been able to make the anti-Netanyahu gatherings a weekly feature of Israel’s political life. Despite dwindling turnout in recent weeks, protest organizers argued the pressure they leveled against Netanyahu helped push Israel towards its fourth elections in two years.

“I don’t think that [New Hope party chief] Gideon Sa’ar would have left the Likud and started his own party unless he knew he had support in the streets,” said prominent activist Amir Haskel, referring to a key Netanyahu rival.

A protester holds a sign reading ‘BB GO HOME’ depicting Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as the character ‘E.T.’ from the 1980s film. The poster behind that depits Netanyahu as China’s late leader Mao Zedong (“Netanmao”). Saturday’s demonstration near the Israeli prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2021 was the final protest ahead of national elections on March 23. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

In late June, Haskel — a retired Israeli Air Force brigadier general — was arrested by the Israel Police while protesting Netanyahu by Paris Square. His detention sparked widespread outrage and denunciations from prominent public figures, turning him into a symbol of the burgeoning movement.

The following week, demonstrators and police clashed in downtown Jerusalem. Police turned water cannons against demonstrators who broke through a police barricade and marched through downtown Jerusalem.

At its peak in mid-summer, the anti-Netanyahu protests saw tens of thousands take to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with thousands more carrying black flags and protest signs on bridges and intersections across the country.

Israeli activist and former Air Force general Amir Haskel holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on June 28, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Organizers hailed what they deemed “an awakening among the youth,” as younger demonstrators joined veteran activists such as Haskel, who had been protesting Netanyahu’s alleged corruption for years.

Activists who spoke to The Times of Israel at the time attributed the protest’s success to its wide tent.

While most demonstrators were center-left, a few right-wing voters and Ultra-Orthodox attendees could often be spotted as well, along with left-wingers bearing Palestinian flags. In the festive, freewheeling atmosphere at Balfour, other protesters held drum circles or meditated in the normally busy intersection.

But the once-massive demonstrations have seen dwindling attendance rates for months as the momentum behind the protest wave faded.

Haskel, seemingly undeterred, called the arc one of many “natural rises and falls in any protest movement.”

But other activists blamed the same broad tent credited with the protests’ initial success. The inability to agree on a central political message besides Netanyahu’s resignation, they said, had contributed to the increasingly lackluster turnout.

“People were scared of being politically labeled and [of taking] clear political stances. It came from a belief — which, in retrospect, was wrong — that in order to build a broad coalition, we needed to blur our political goals,” said protest organizer Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a longtime activist who directs the anti-Netanyahu organization Crime Minister.

Israelis clash with police during a protest march against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on their way to Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street, September 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Turnout was also galvanized by clashes between police and demonstrators, with some accusing the Israel Police of using excessive force. Police deployed water cannons against protesters for several weeks — in apparent violation of riot dispersal regulations — and one senior cop was filmed punching a demonstrator in the jaw.

Some demonstrators had hoped to translate the swelling crowds into Knesset seats. But while several political parties sought to pursue the protest vote, none of them succeeded. The mass gatherings lost momentum and largely dissipated.

“There was no political power created, and this was a failure. We were able to make a huge protest [movement] with lots of potential political power — but without any means of channeling it,” Ben Yitzhak said.

Ben Yitzhak himself joined the right-wing Telem party, led by former Israeli military chief Moshe Ya’alon. The party withdrew from the race after numerous polls indicated that it would not pass the election threshold.

In a microcosm of the political confusion reigning in the anti-Netanyahu camp, Ben Yitzhak told The Times of Israel that he intends to vote for Meretz, a left-wing Zionist party.

Israelis protest against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Balfour St., outside the PM’s official residence, in Jerusalem on September 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While the race remains close, according to opinion polling, Netanyahu has a good shot of retaining power in the coming vote. In polls released on Saturday by Channel 12 and 13, Netanyahu was projected to win between 30 to 32 seats, although his path to a majority in the Knesset remained unclear.

But for Haskel, who protested against Netanyahu for years, there would be no alternative except to continue demonstrating in the event of a Netanyahu victory.

“I don’t know what others will do, I can only speak for myself. I will remain here and protest — if nothing else than to soothe my conscience, so I can say to myself that I’ve done everything I could for this cause,” Haskel said.

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