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Is Israel’s social protest movement about to emerge?

A return to the mass demonstrations of 2011 can happen only if protest leaders appear to be free of ulterior motives
Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against Israel's government in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against Israel's government in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Nine years ago, in mid-July 2011, widespread protests calling for social justice and decrying the rising costs of living broke out in cities throughout Israel. The large demonstration in Tel Aviv last Saturday night and the growing protests outside the prime minister’s home in Jerusalem have many wondering whether the political, health and economic crises the country is now facing will lead to a similar large-scale display of public outrage.

These protests have raised hopes in the hearts of some Israelis and disappointment among others. Some see these mounting protests around the country as proof of the unleashed potential of the general public’s expression of dissatisfaction with the current leadership. Others lament the organizers’ insistence that this movement is “non-political,” and bemoan the lack of a coherent agenda beyond demanding that the government show greater generosity in its economic aid packages to those impacted by the corona crisis.

It should be noted that, similar to a pandemic, protests can be hard to predict when, where and against what backdrop an “outbreak” will erupt and then grow exponentially. The existing research and academic literature identifies a number of “ingredients” (usually in retrospect) as necessary triggers for such protests. Examples of such elements include; severe economic crisis, defeat in war, divisions among the ruling elite — when part of the leadership cooperates with civil society demonstrators — and even external financial support of local protests aimed at destabilizing existing pillars of power. It is important to note, however, that even when a number of these conditions exist, significant and impactful protests do not necessarily materialize. For almost every case where a strong and lasting protest broke out one can find a parallel example where the conditions seemed very similar, yet protests were either not ignited at all, or did not succeed in gaining popularity or leading to noticeable change.

Turning to the current reality, two factors likely to imminently set off a wave of protests are clear. The economic crisis is negatively affecting an increasing number of Israelis and there is a growing possibility that in the near future the national health system might soon lose its ability to cope with the rising number of critically ill patients. Another element that can be added to these domestic developments is the tide of anti-government protests sweeping across the US. These raucous demonstrations have received significant media coverage in Israel and — again like pandemics — protests are a global phenomenon and can be just as ‘contagious’ as viral diseases.

Despite these factors that are seemingly laying the groundwork for increased protests in Israel, the key element that may decide whether a new wave of protest will break out throughout the country is distrust. Public trust in decision-makers and professional bodies in Israel, in the context of their treatment of the coronavirus crisis is sinking. The prevailing feeling among the public today — including those Israelis who voted for parties that make up the current governing coalition — is that there is no captain standing at the helm and ably navigating the ship of state through this unprecedented health and economic storm.

Even among his most ardent fans, Prime Minister Netanyahu is rapidly losing support. He is not alone. The country’s medical and public health experts are attacked daily, not only by the general public who must cope with the impact of their decisions, but also by their peers and colleagues who question their professional judgment. These reactions are even more apparent when it comes to the public outrage at the government’s economic experts who seem unable to stem the tide of the sudden economic downturn. We therefore have seemingly fertile ground for a broad popular protest movement.

Despite all these indicators that we are on the cusp of a wave of significant public protest, a new phenomenon is simultaneously unfolding before us that could stem this possibility. These latest demonstrations are taking place not only while there is distrust in the government, but at a time when there is also growing distrust among significant portions of the population with regard to the real motivations of the protest organizers and those backing them.

There are repeated allegations (some would say conspiracy theories) that the protest organizers are actually supported by political elements pre-opposed to the government or, alternatively, are actually encouraged by government supporters who want to deflate the spirit of the protesters and create the public perception that they are tied to political figures and parties. For example, some have claimed that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is backing the protests. Others have alleged that “Shulmanim,” a group representing the self-employed, are actually planning to run in the next election and aim to garner the votes of those frustrated by the current situation, and then form an alliance with Netanyahu’s Likud immediately after the polls close.

Without public confidence that the leadership of the demonstrations taking place today is authentically supportive of the issues they have raised, and that they do not in some way serve ulterior interests, a wave of sustainable mass protest will simply not rise up. This is not to say that there will not be an increase in small to mid-sized displays of protest in the coming days. Nevertheless, the major question that remains unanswered is whether the various groups and interests — each with their unique ideological composition – currently filling Israel’s town squares will succeed in creating a common platform and strategy that can serve as the basis for sustained civic action that will successfully bring about real change for the country. The answer will likely become apparent in just a few short weeks.

About the Author
Prof. Tamar Hermann, Academic Director of the Guttmann Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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