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What are the perspectives of today’s demonstrations in Israel ?

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After 3 elections in less than a year and the establishment of a Union Government supported by 75 deputees, in order to face the epidemy and its consequences, we could have thought that Israel had at last emerged from the political crisis it went through during 18 months, with transition governments and without a voted budget.

And now, less than 3 months after its appointment, that new government may have to resign because of a disagreement between the two mainstream parties over the duration of the budget to be adopted on August 25th at the latest.
In spite of the coalition agreements made with Gantz, providing a bi-annual budget for 2020 and 2021, Netanyahu wants to have a budget voted only for the current year which is about to end. Gantz is opposed to that requirement, knowing that is is a trick of Netanyahu in order to overcome this crisis and to be able, in a few months, to topple the government and to avoid applying the rotation agreement according to which Gantz will have to take over from him as Prime Minister in November 2021.

That political crisis is taking place while we are witnessing these last few weeks a wave of growing demonstrations everywhere in the country. Unlike the summer 2011 “Tent Protest” that had gathered hundreds of thousands Israelis mobilized against the high cost of living—symbolized by the price of “cottage cheese”, basis of every Israeli breakfast—current demonstrations gather movements some of which have more political demands. Very young demonstrators joined those, more elderly, who have been gathering for more than a year in front of the Prime Minister’s residency in Jerusalem in order to protest against the fact that the country was led by a man charged in three cases for fraud, breach of trust and corruption.

Week after week, several movements meet in order to ask for Netanyahu’s resignation. However, we cannot so far speak of convergence of struggles:

  • The “Black Flags” gathering several hundreds of demonstrators posted every Saturday on the motorway bridges and the major crossroads of the country.
  • The “Crime Minister” mobilized against corruption.
  • A movement composed mostly of young people who are severely affected by the economic crisis. Moreover, many of them are infuriated by the measures of movement control caused by the coronavirus.
  • Self-employed people and victims of the economic crisis in the country, who blame the government for its erratic management of the crisis and its contradictory decisions, while about one million of them lost their jobs. The last support measures taken are not enough, and often come too late, unable to save the individual companies of most of them. In comparison, according to Channel 12, Israel devotes 1,5% of its GDP to help self-employed people, while France gives them 12,1% and England 14,5%.

For the government, those last demonstrators are the most dangerous. First of all, because many of them are the base of the Likud electorate. And the fact that some of them accept more and more to demonstrate with those qualified as “anarchists ” and “leftists” by Netanyahu is an indication of the erosion of the Prime Minister’s power.

However, Netanyahu had well managed the first wave of the epidemy. By bringing himself to the forefront of the fight against the virus, he had been showered with praise by the public and, as he said, by the main leaders of the world, for his management of the sanitary crisis. On the crest of his aura, he had not hesitated to ask to be paid back taxes amounting to one million shekels—without realizing the impudence of that claim when a majority of the population suffered from the economic crisis.

Meanwhile, he had put on the government agenda the implementation of the project of annexation of part of the West Bank, according to Trump’s Peace Plan; but he preferred to ignore other measures of that plan, namely the creation of a Palestinian State in the remaining part of the West Bank. However, that project did not mobilize the Israeli public: only 4% saw it as an important issue, while 69% focused on the economic situation. According to a different poll, 85% of Israelis worry today for their future. Understanding that change in the public opinion, Netanyahu put away the project of annexation and stopped having discussions on this matter with the White House, itself more preoccupied by Trump’s current difficulties in getting re-elected. Even so, Netanyahu did not give it up, and he might put it back on the table, depending on the outcome of the American elections.

But having customized so much his management of the sanitary crisis, Netanyahu got the backlash of a botched deconfinement when, like the President of the United States, he called too fast the Israelis to resume their activities. Most Israelis consider him as liable for the current situation while there is a new outbreak of the epidemic in all the country. According to the last poll issued by the Israeli Institute for Democracy, only 25% of the population approve Netanyahu’s management of the sanitary crisis while 58% support the demonstrations against the economic policy of the government. That decline in popularity is reflected in polls: the Likud could go back down to 30 mandates on the 120 of the Knesset. That decline does not benefit its current partner the Blue White party which would get ten mandates, but would benefit the opposition parties Bennett’s Yamina in the extreme right and Lapid’s Yesh Atid in the center.

Of course, the right remains predominant in the country, but Netanyahu, who knows well the fickleness of Israelis, is fully aware of the danger implied by the current demonstrations. His main asset is the absence of a credible leader to replace him. Benny Gantz, the only challenger to have put him on the spot, is in trouble since he chose to be part of an emergency government. It makes it difficult for him to emphasize the few achievements he may qualify for with his Labor allies after 70 days in the government. These achievements may be significant—like the increase in aid to self-employed people, the agreement made with social workers in order to improve their working conditions, the extension of unemployment compensation till June 2021, the vote (with the opposition) against the bill introduced by the Orthodox parties to “reeducate” young people having an homosexual inclination, the blockage of the project of annexation (insisting he would support it only if the government planned to implement Trump’s Peace Plan in full), the defeat of the bill to circumvent of the Supreme Court… But according to the public opinion, those achievements are no credit to him.

Today’s demonstrations have a scent of “May 68”: a weekly happening where, alongside street shows organized sometimes by artists trying to express their despair in today’s Israel, demonstrators much more politicized get together, and do not hesitate to establish through their slogans a link between Netanyahu’s supposed corruption and his Likud ministers and the Occupation of the Palestinian territories. The observers notice that most demonstrators do not usually join the demonstrations of the left, and that some of them present themselves as Likud electors. If none of the political parties of the opposition claims the paternity of these demonstrations, many leaders from the left or the center call people to take part in them. Another specificity of that protest movement is the call sent by many demonstrators to other components of the Israeli society to come and join them.

The pro Bibi “counter-demonstrators”, in spite of the presence in their midst of violent groups like “La Famiglia” (association of the supporters of the Betar Jerusalem football club) are still a fringe group. The growing nervousness of the Netanyahu camp and the rise in violence, especially among these counter-demonstrators, raise concern that a potential skid will end up with victims.

What are the perspectives for a way out of the crisis ?

Today, all scenarios are still possible and a fourth turn is not the unlikeliest one. If Netanyahu runs out the clock and hopes the movement will lose momentum, the opposition bets on the strengthening of these demonstrations and waits for a potential change of President in Washington which would weaken the Prime Minister, especially when he will have to appear before the judges thrice a week, starting from January 2021.

Unless there is a dramatic development, it is so far unlikely that Netanyahu resigns under the popular pressure, as did other Israeli Prime Ministers before him— Golda Meir after the Yom Kippur War, Menachem Begin after the first Lebanon war, Ehud Barak after the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Camp David, and Ehud Olmert after being indicted for corruption. But those leaders put the common good before personal interests.

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