Many in North America, even those who usually follow developments in Israel, are barely aware of the growing demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What started out as small weekly demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, have grown over the past weeks to simultaneous weekly demonstrations, in Tel Aviv and in multiple locations throughout the country.
And although the origins of the “Balfour demonstrations” were protests against the “Crime Minister”, focusing on Bibi’s holding onto power even while under indictment for charges of political corruption, in a trial yet to be held, they have taken on a life of their own.
Crowds of young people, defying rules of social distancing, spur each other on, with all the social-media-fed positive feedback from supporters, and the excitement of fighting the good fight. Opposition to the demonstrations, and attempts to curtail them, only serves to strengthen the common cause of those who join in.
But I was unclear – apart from the contagious enthusiasm of a mass social movement and street demonstrations, what are the underlying motivations and real causes? Is it Bibi’s corruption? Bibi’s handling of the coronavirus crisis? Or objections to Bibi’s geopolitical positions e.g. re annexation?
To help see the forest for the trees, I turned to my Jerusalem brother, Ilan Rubin, the sage of French Hill, for his succinct analysis of what underlies this current phenomenon. Although retired from the senior civil service, Ilan, who served as Secretary General of the Jewish Agency for Israel, retains a broad perspective on Israeli society and its evolution.
According to Ilan, the “Balfour demonstrations” are an example of “a perfect storm” – where a myriad of underlying conditions combine with some unpredictable factors to trigger a critical state of affairs.
Here are the combining factors:
1) Genuinely immoral behaviour by Bibi. And like for those who object to Trump’s behaviour, being part of a resisting collective holding the moral high ground is a wonderful, self-validating unimpeachable feeling;
2) All the dirty tricks and low tactics being used by Bibi and his henchmen to delay the judicial process;
3) Demagogic attacks on anybody who criticizes Bibi, craven support from all the Likud leadership AND an understanding that Bibi’s base is NOT going to abandon him;
4) A final understanding that the old reigning Israeli elite is no more, and the sudden (belated) realization that the Visigoths (right-wingers, Haredim, Hardali crazies, ethnic Edot Hamizrach demagogues) have taken over. The best example: the only alternative to replace Bibi is Naphtali Bennett. For the first time, the next Israeli election will not be between a leader of the right versus a leader of the left, but between two leaders of the right. And in the latest polls, Bennet’s Yamina party is predicted to get as many as 24 seats versus as few as 27 for the Likud. Polls also indicate many Kahol Lavan voters are currently “parked” at Yamina.
5) The understanding that once Kahol Lavan went into the 50/50 coalition government with the Likud, there was no way that Bibi would be removed politically;
6) The times in the past (the demonstrations against Golda in 1974, the demonstrations against the Lebanese occupation) where ongoing demonstrations DID bring down the prime minister;
7) The sloppy way that the second Corona wave was handled, AND the evidence that politics were at the base of too many of the health decisions.
Here it should be said that conspiracy theories have also gone a long way to killing young people’s faith in the powers-that-be, including: “Corona is just flu with PR”; “Corona is a pretext for turning the country into a dictatorship”; and “5G, along with a Corona “vaccine”, will put transmitting metals into all citizens on the way to create a police state”
8) Finally, and perhaps most important – the CATALYST: Corona killed – for the foreseeable future – all the thousands of jobs, mostly filled by young people, associated with restaurants, theatres, weddings, educational freelancing. Suddenly, so many young people have no jobs or income, and lots of available time and energy, and that gives the pressure and the bona fide despair, depression and righteous indignation that fuels the demonstrations.
According to Ilan, none of the counter-arguments – no matter how logical or reasonable – seem to have any effect:
1) The employment problem is real, but it is a result of a serious worldwide pandemic, and NOT caused by Bibi or governmental incompetence – it affects the economies of all countries in the Western world.
2) The insistence of young people on the sacred right of mass demonstrations, in the time of an airborne pandemic, demonstrates the same irresponsibility and lack of civic solidarity that they decry in Haredi mass prayers and Arab mass weddings. The eye-rolling, almost religious insistence that political demonstrations don’t cause Corona spread – while agreeing that Haredim/Arab parallel events DO – is pathetic (as Billy Crystal says in “Mr. Saturday Night” – “Pork, yet Kosher: How do they do it?!”)
3) Polls prove that these anti-Bibi demonstrations actually STRENGTHEN Bibi’s base, so it is politically anti-productive. Only attacking Bibi on the government’s Corona record might weaken Bibi’s base and support within the Likud. That is why Bennett has become the go-to PM alternative: his excellent policy proposals regarding Corona have done the trick.
4) For the police to allow groups, no matter how sweet and cute, to march through central city streets without a license (a recurring source of altercation in these demonstrations) is a dangerous precedent for all kinds of rough and demagogue-incited demonstrators in the future that can truly threaten Israeli democracy.
5) The current government is 50-50: no measures can be decided without the agreement of Kahol Lavan, so the idea that all the Corona measures are really being taken just for Bibi’s ulterior motives would require us to believe that Ganz/Ashkenazi are also part of the conspiracy.
And so, undeterred by the logic of the counterarguments, and fuelled by the convergence of multiple underlying factors, the Balfour demonstrations continue.