Middle East Eye / July 30, 2020
In 1995, the prime minister incited the anger that led to the assassination of Rabin. This time he’s orchestrating events so the hatred falls squarely on the protesters.
There is violence in the air, a sense of danger. In fact, there is violence on the ground as well. Week after week, in exceptionally persistent and stormy demonstrations, violence is there as a constant. Fear is rising of another kind of violence – the kind that kills not only democracy, but might actually kill people too.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself lays the ground for that kind of violence.
Day after day, he incites the protesters and calls them names. They are “anarchists”, they plot a “coup” against him and the rule of the right. He does not even shy away from the antisemitic motif of “Jews spread disease”.
In Netanyahu’s version of the Jewish state, the demonstrators pee in the backyards and thus spread infectious disease. That is what he said referring to the mass protest in front of his Jerusalem residence.
Earlier his alter-ego son, Yair, has tweeted a photo of a protester urinating in front of the prime minister’s residence. The only issue was that the photograph was taken in the United States, one example from a long list of fake news intentionally spread to add fuel to the fire.
Day after day, Netanyahu raises the issue of a clear and present danger to him and his family. He writes about it constantly on his very active social media accounts and acts upon it by mobilising unprecedented means of protection provided to him by Israel’s security agencies.
His official residency in Jerusalem and the family private villa in Caesarea, both sites of mass demonstrations, look more like fortresses.
That is in fact a very unusual reaction by Israeli standards. Several former prime ministers and top officials have been subjected to aggressive incitement and open threats before. Prime ministers Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, who was actually killed by a young Jewish right-wing radical, to name a few.
They all played down the threats, maybe out of misplaced pride and machismo. Netanyahu, though, plays it up and inflates the “imminent danger” out of all proportion.
Likud officials are on a mission to raise the “danger to prime minister’s life” theme on every occasion.
“We are not afraid of criticism but rather of violence directed at the prime minister and his family,” said Amir Ohana, minister of public security, in a radio interview.
But when asked if Netanyahu’s life was in real danger, retired major-general Amiram Levin, formerly chief commander of an elite military unit and once deputy head of Mossad, quickly shot back: “No way!”
“It’s all his own invention to delegitimise the protest against him,” he told Middle East Eye.
Yet Levin was bearer of bad news. “In the coming weeks, one or two of the demonstrators against Netanyahu will be killed by a bullet, a grenade or any other weapon. It is just a matter of time, a rather short time.”
Levin’s warning came as a small number of protesters had been stabbed, stoned and beaten by a wild group of right-wing Netanyahu supporters, bent on protecting their man.
His gloomy prognosis was deeply rooted in Israel’s history of protest: the bullet – or grenade – always comes from right to left. There is no precedent of a bullet shot in the other direction.
It is even more dangerous now when a super-spreader of incitement like Netanyahu is playing a major role in this dangerous process. That is what he did 25 years ago, actively participating in incitement that ended in the assassination of Rabin.
Luckily, for him, he does not have a Netanyahu inciting against Bibi.
A similar atmosphere
Amiram Goldblum, a lifelong peace activist and former leader of the Peace Now Movement, recalled that, previously, top leaders and prime ministers steered clear of such behaviour.
“Unlike nowadays, in the times of our ’83 protest, incitement came from the lower ranks of Likud, never from Begin himself,” he said, in reference to one of a series of mass demonstrations against the first war in Lebanon.
More specifically, he refers to the 10 February 1983 demonstration in Jerusalem, where one of the protesters, Emil Grunzweig, was killed by a grenade thrown at the peace rally by Yonah Avrushmi. The killer was an exact prototype of the right-wing, soaked-with-hatred, self- appointed mercenaries acting against protests today.
Goldblum was marching shoulder to shoulder with Grunzweig when the grenade exploded.
“The atmosphere is quite similar to the one decades ago,” Goldblum told MEE.
“In fact, it is just another stage in a civil war that started with Rabin’s assassination, and the hatred is much more tangible now. I am not afraid, but certainly try to be cautious attending the demonstrations. I can recognise them from distance and some of them can recognise me.”
The similarity ends there. The 1983 protest focused on one issue – the war in Lebanon. 1995’s rally was in support of democracy and the Oslo Accords. 2020’s demonstrations are instead an outburst of the rage, frustration and disappointment felt by at least three generations, who despair of what has become of their country and of what their country did to them.
Just as an earthquake exposes all hidden under the ruins, the coronavirus pandemic uncovered all decay underneath. A prime minister charged on corruption charges was already there; so was a systemic erosion in democracy.
Both had previously brought Israelis to the streets in anger, but only in small numbers
It took a terrible virus for many Israelis to realise that the system was not only corrupt but also totally inefficient, cynical and detached from the everyday life of the citizens it was supposed to serve.
In fact, it is one of those rare occasions where the eruption of rage that has taken to the streets almost every day now can be traced back to a series of events.
First came the pictures of Netanyahu celebrating the Passover Seder traditional dinner with his grown-up son, while millions of Israelis under lockdown were ordered to spend the family evening in total solitude. Lonely, miserable and out of work.
Then came the gathering of the parliamentary finance committee to discuss (and approve) the prime minister’s request for retroactive tax refunds on expenses at his private villa in Caesarea. During the debate, Likud MP Miki Zohar argued that the taxes would have left Netanyahu “financially crippled”. Netanyahu is a multimillionaire.
That tragic-comic exchange took place at end of June, the onset of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with one million Israelis unemployed and by then thousands hungry. It resonated with perplexed Israelis; even Netanyahu’s ardent supporters.
Then came the “open windows” farce. The caring government worked out a solution for public transportation and came up with a very sensible solution: most bus lines would be allowed to resume – with open windows to avoid the spreading of the virus.
Made sense? Not really. For almost a decade buses in Israel have had no widows that open. But elected officials had not ridden on a bus for over a decade, so how should they know.
What else did they not know about the life of the people they are in charge of? In fact, much more. A few days later, the government decided to close all restaurants they’d allowed to reopen just days before. Obedient and broke restaurateurs threw away all the products they bought and cancelled all reservations – just to hear a few hours later that in fact restaurants could remain open. By then, most of them could not keep up with the decision-making process of the parliament.
Deep into the second wave and the onset of mass demonstrations, Netanyahu convened another press conference and proudly promised a universal corona bonus to every citizen, which he said would land in bank accounts within few days. That was on 15 July. There is still no money in the bank.
Hurt, disillusioned, angry
It may sound like a trivial litany of minuscule problems in the midst of a universal pandemic. It is not. It is Israelis’ real encounter with their leadership and the system.
They’ve learned that health system does not work; there is a shortage of hospital beds and medical staff.
They’ve learned that the welfare system does not work; in the midst of the health and economic crisis, when the weakest needed help and support, underpaid social workers went on a long strike. It took weeks for the government to pay attention and reach some agreement with them.
Most of all, Israelis see their politicians as self-absorbed, totally detached from the everyday life of their constituency, as if they live on another planet.
That is when they took to the streets. Huge crowds with unprecedented energy and resilience. Hurt, disillusioned, angry, deeply concerned about their future.
The strength and the weakness of this protest is its diversity. Some protest against Netanyahu’s corruption and want him out. As he was the one to take credit for whatever worked in the first months of the pandemic, he is the one to blame as things worsen.
Some take to the streets to save Israeli democracy; others are terrified for their financial future. All of these people have lost trust in the country’s leadership.
Most are not even sure that the recent “security incident with Hezbollah” on the northern border was more than a media event to distract attention. Occasionally, even an anti-annexation protester emerges in the crowd.
The good news is the re-emergence of the young generation in the mass demonstrations. For years, middle-aged or even ageing Israelis have constantly looked around for the younger generation to lead the protest. Today students’ organisations have announced they are joining the protest.
They feel abandoned. They are finally there, the only ones who can bring about the much-needed change.
In the meantime, the threat of a fourth round of elections is hanging over the heads of the Israelis. Netanyahu is not running the country. Over the last few weeks he has been running a campaign.
Lily Galili is a senior Israeli journalist and lecturer focusing on all aspects of Israeli society and immigration to Israel