Israeli protesters’ simple message to embattled Netanyahu

Israeli protesters’ simple message to embattled Netanyahu

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Israelis protest against PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and his government’s handling of COVID-19, Jerusalem, July 25, 2020. (Reuters)

An effective political and social protest movement needs a slogan that encapsulates its objective and the mood of the country. In addition, it has to be catchy and must instinctively resonate with those who take to the streets. Evidently, the slogan used by protesters calling for the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets all these criteria. “Lech” (go) — a single two-letter word in Hebrew — has become the slogan on all the protestors’ lips, banners, stickers and T-shirts across the country. There is now not even a need to mention the PM’s name, for everyone knows who the word is being addressed to.
What started as a battle cry calling for a prime minister who is on trial for corruption to resign, or at least suspend himself until the courts decide his fate, is turning into a popular movement that is airing its widespread grievances against a leader who has been in power for too long and is utterly detached from the daily realities of ordinary citizens.
President Reuven Rivlin — in a speech last week in a Knesset plenum session and in a rare act for an Israeli president — expressed his deep concerns regarding the current state of affairs in the country, capturing the general malaise of a population that has been forced into a second lockdown. He observed that, as the “(coronavirus disease) crisis deepened, so did the disagreements and the splits between us. I never imagined with what power this disunity would hit us.” If this was a more of a general observation, what followed was a stinging critique of the violent clashes between police and demonstrators and the tribalism that “is breaking out through the cracks, and accusatory fingers are pointed from one part of society to the other, one tribe to the other.”
Israeli presidents generally avoid involvement in political issues as their position is mainly ceremonial but, in the face of the deliberate disruption and anarchy spread by Netanyahu and his allies, Rivlin decided to speak out on behalf of ordinary citizens, warning that the country — and by that he meant the government — is losing its moral compass. It is not only the issue of Netanyahu remaining in office while on trial, but also his ongoing, two-year-long refusal to appoint a chief of police or approve a budget, all for his own vested political interests, that has led Israelis to protest and Rivlin to speak out.
In this unprecedented speech, Rivlin became the voice of the people. He stopped short of calling for Netanyahu to “lech,” but the word was screaming from between the lines of this address by a veteran Likud member who knows that this might be the only way to spare the country from further misery. It is Netanyahu’s complete disregard for the democratic institutions and processes, let alone the well-being of the country and its people, that is deeply disturbing, not only for the prime minister’s political rivals but also for many Likud veterans and voters who are concerned for the soul of their party and the future of their country.
Netanyahu and his close circle have by now developed a siege mentality, viciously attacking everyone who dares question their policies and the irresponsible manner in which they are handling themselves in government. They are conducting a campaign to delegitimize their political opponents, the justice system, the media and nongovernmental organizations, while portraying themselves as victims of a conspiracy to remove them from power in violation of the will of the people.
Nothing could be further from the truth, but this is a convenient distraction from the fact that they are out of their depth in dealing with the current health crisis and, even more pertinently, from their attempts to halt their leader’s trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. It is disturbing behavior, particularly with their cynical exploitation of a catastrophic pandemic, which is depriving so many of their lives, health, livelihoods and education, all for the sake of ensuring that Netanyahu escapes justice.
However, the Netanyahu camp is showing a rapidly increasing tendency to miscalculate under pressure and underestimate the widespread anger. One obvious error of judgement was to prohibit demonstrators from protesting more than 1 km away from their homes. While the original aim was to stymie the many thousands of protesters who were gathering every week outside the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence, the unintended consequence was hundreds of smaller protests on bridges, at major road junctions, and anywhere else people could congregate within the legal distance from their homes, while also physically distancing themselves from one another to prevent the spread of the virus.
The impact of these relatively small protests has been even greater than the original demonstrations. “Lech” is now being voiced by many more people, in many more places across the country, and this is unsettling the small circle led by Netanyahu, who in the past was the master manipulator of such situations, but is now increasingly losing ground and control of those around him.

‘Lech’ is now being voiced by many more people, in many more places across the country.

Yossi Mekelberg

Some of his henchmen are brutes who lack the manipulative skills of their boss. Last week, Miki Zohar, who happens to be the coalition chairman, committed what can only be described as an attempt to blackmail Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, claiming that he has plenty of dirt ready to publicly dish out on Mandelblit should he continue to refuse to drop the charges against Netanyahu. And Miri Regev, a Cabinet minister with somewhat of a short fuse, completely lost her temper on a TV talk show when she screamed at presenter Eyal Berkovic and threatened to block him from being appointed manager of the national football team. Ironically, her threat and demand for an apology was in response to the former football star’s remark that Likud is behaving like an organized crime gang — a suggestion that was given much credibility by her behavior.
Israel, as a democracy and as a society, is at a critical crossroads in its short history. It requires an able government, one with integrity, that is free of corruption, and which puts the interest of the country above the narrow political consideration — in other words, everything that the current Israeli government, and especially the man who heads it, is lacking. Therefore, “Lech Netanyahu” remains the only hope for Israel to stop a dangerous tide that is threatening to engulf a very shaky democracy and a divided society.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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