As Israel’s Covid-19 infections have soared, protests have swelled against the country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In August, tens of thousands took to the streets outside the leader’s residence in Jerusalem – and this weekend, even after the introduction of tightened new pandemic restrictions, hundreds of demonstrations continued to be held across the country.
The protesters are calling on Netanyahu to resign over his government’s failings on coronavirus, as well as the ongoing criminal case against him on charges of corruption. And with the government’s coalition now cracking under the strain of the country’s internal divides, some analysts and politicians are asking how far the unrest could lead.
“We cannot be dragged into a civil war,” warned labor and welfare minister, Itzik Shmuli, of Israel’s Labor Party on Twitter on Saturday, following a weekend of fraught demonstrations.
The prime minister and his allies have disparaged protesters as anarchists, leftists, traitors and “disease spreaders” set on toppling his right-wing government. Netanyahu’s son, Yair, who has a penchant for sharing alt-right conspiracy theories, tweeted over the weekend that, “The evil globalists people who funded and organised riots in America, are doing the same thing in Israel!”
But the protests have now become such a part of the furniture of Israeli politics, that restrictions on demonstrating were among last month’s sticking points when Israel went into its second national Covid-19 lockdown. Last week, Israel’s Knesset parliament approved further restrictions limiting protests to 20 people not further than 1 kilometre from their homes.
“These are dark days for the State of Israel,” said one anti-Netanyahu movement, known as the “Black Flags”, in a statement last week. “No country has legislated to limit the right to protest, for a simple reason: There is no public health logic behind it. There is only the logic of a criminal.”
Groups involved in the protests pledged to continue in line with new, stricter Covid-19 restrictions. Indeed, over the weekend, under the banner “a kilometre it is”, they took place across Israel. According to the Black Flags movement, 130,000 people protested. Yet the demonstrations were marred by a repressive police response and reports of violent attacks, supposedly by Netanyahu supporters.
In Tel Aviv, where officers punched protesters as they attempted to get through the demonstrators, there were 38 arrests and hundreds of fines handed out, according to a report in the Haaretz newspaper. Police claimed demonstrators violated the lockdown rules and disturbed the public order.
Police have also clashed with ultra-Orthodox communities in recent days. Eighteen were arrested in Jerusalem on Sunday, supposedly for violating Covid-19 restrictions.
Politicians including defence minister Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party, who is meant to function as Israel’s alternate prime minister under his rotation coalition deal with Netanyahu’s Likud Party, defended the anti-Netanyhu demonstrators. “The attack on protesters this evening and in recent days is unacceptable,” Gantz tweeted on Saturday. “The demonstrations taking place according to the guidelines are a legitimate and necessary thing in a democracy. I call on the police to lay their hands on the attackers and bring them to justice.”
Some analysts are now asking whether the continued fracturing in Israeli society – pro-Netanyahu vs anti-Netanyahu, religious and secular – could indeed lead to civil war. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 is no distant memory. Could Netanyahu’s continuing attempts to curb the protests, alongside Israel’s lack of control on coronavirus, do this long-time political survivor some serious political damage?
Last week, Blue and White’s Asaf Zamir quit as tourism minister over his lack of faith in Netanyahu. “The coronavirus crisis is at best a secondary priority for the prime minister,” he said. “The personal and legal considerations are what interests Netanyahu, and this has been clear from every step he has taken.”
This sentiment is shared across the party. Five months after Blue and White took a political risk and formed a national unity government with Netanyahu’s Likud, the coalition is increasingly straining under the weight of bad faith politics. Netanyahu went ahead with the recent normalisation deal with UAE without consulting his coalition partners, for instance.
Miki Haimovich, another member of Blue and White, told Israel’s Kann 11 channel on Sunday that “a growing group” within the party is considering dismantling the partnership with Likud, or even “the option of dissolving”. She said “We must not give up on positions of power, but we must take steps to replace Netanyahu.”
Gantz last week signalled that he is willing to drop his compromising ways, by announcing Blue and White will move to appoint a permanent state attorney, a position not properly filled since December, without consulting with Likud. Gantz also ended a Facebook post on the state attorney announcement with a nod to Netanyahu: “If anyone disagrees, they can set a date for elections”.
The polls offer Netanyahu cold comfort. Sixty-five per cent of Israelis are dissatisfied with how he has handled the crisis, according to a Channel 12 News poll published yesterday. Likud would only get 26 Knesset seats, down from the 36 it currently has, if an election took place tomorrow. Meanwhile the right-wing Yamina party, led by Netanyahu’s former ally Naftali Bennet, was predicted to win an uncomfortably close 23 seats. The party is currently in opposition, and has five seats in the Knesset. Blue and White are only predicted to win seven seats, according to the poll.
A deadline for passing the state budget looms in December. In August, after a bitter political impasse, the Knesset approved an extension to the deadline, avoiding yet another early election. The current national unity government was only formed after Israel ran three repeat elections in the space of a year. If the deadline is missed again, the country could see itself at the same crisis point.
This time, with his poor record on Covid-19 and an economic crisis alongside his corruption charges, Netanyahu may find securing a coalition deal a serious challenge. The even greater concern, however, is whether country’s divisions are nearing a point of no return.