For the second time in his current tenure as prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu is facing popular protests in Israel’s streets. Unlike the first instance in 2011, when the protests were squarely directed at the high costs of living borne by Israelis in everything from housing to basic food staples, the current protests that have taken over Jerusalem’s Paris Square, Tel Aviv’s Charles Clore Park, and bridges and highway overpasses across Israel are less focused. This time, Israeli protesters are consumed by a host of issues; mismanagement of coronavirus, the perceived inadequacy of the government’s response to the economic challenges that the pandemic has wrought, Netanyahu’s personal corruption, bloated and inefficient cabinet ministries, police brutality, the occupation of the West Bank and potential annexation, and on and on. The unifying factor behind all of these complaints is that they are directed at Netanyahu himself.
In this way, the “black flag” protests are very different from the 2011 social justice protests. Those protests were issue-specific, and the protestors were not – beyond some isolated exceptions – demanding the fall of the government or the resignation of any one official. In fact, protest leaders eventually pledged to work with the government to bring about change and laid out calls for reforms on taxes, housing, and transportation. This allowed the protests to be backed by an ideologically diverse and wide coalition of groups encompassing nearly every segment of Israeli society, resulting in the protests being viewed at the outset as non-partisan and of unprecedented numbers of people participating. Rather than condemn the protests and the protestors, Netanyahu’s response was to publicly sympathize with and try to engage them.
The current environment could not be more different. While the Black Flag Movement that initiated the anti-Netanyahu protests is issue-specific in calling out governmental corruption, the protests have clearly become a catch-all for any criticisms of Netanyahu. That does not make them illegitimate or unjustified, but it does mean that in a country that is so polarized politically, the protests are – like everything else in Israel these days – viewed through the prism of politics and partisanship. It makes their appeal inherently less widespread, makes it easier for Netanyahu to go after them with increasingly outrageous characterizations that are nonetheless accepted and repeated by his supporters, and makes it impossible to attract the same numbers or diversity as the ones that rocked Israel nine years ago.
There is, however, one critically important way in which the protests are the same, and it provides a guide to what the ultimate result might be. What was true in 2011 and remains true today is that no matter how much energy is expended in the streets, there is no obvious vehicle to harness that energy and transform it into political change. Unlike the protests in the U.S. in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality, where the Democratic Party has associated itself with the protestors’ goals and complaints, in Israel it is less clear whether there is a political party that can capitalize on popular discontent. And without a way to make the jump from protests to politics, the movement to unseat Netanyahu is eventually going to lose steam and wither on the vine.
In 2011, Netanyahu and Likud were actually in less of a dominant political position than they are now. Netanyahu had become prime minister two years earlier, but only because Tzipi Livni and Kadima were unable to form a government despite winning the most Knesset seats in the election. Netanyahu did not have the same stranglehold over Likud or over Likud’s coalition partners as he does today. Members of his government and prominent local politicians such as Nir Barkat and Ron Huldai were quick to publicly align themselves with the protests. The notions of King Bibi or Bibi the Magician had not yet entered the Israeli consciousness.
Despite this, the Israeli opposition was in no position to use the protests to its political advantage. Labor was adrift (proving that some things never change) and wracked by infighting between different wings of the party, and dealing with the fallout of Ehud Barak’s departure from Labor and formation of his own short-lived Atzmaut party. Kadima, the Knesset’s largest party, was in no way placed to be the political standard bearer for the protests given that it had no track record on social justice issues, had not advocated for any of the protestors’ calls for reform before the protests began, and its constituency was motivated far more by Israeli-Palestinian issues than anything else. For all of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets, there was no obvious political leader or political party to which they could turn. And while some of the protest leaders eventually entered politics themselves, most famously Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir (one of whom now sits in the current Netanyahu government and one of whom is currently out of politics), the end result was a bunch of Netanyahu promises, the formation of the Trajtenberg Commission that also fizzled out, and little more than many Israeli nostalgic memories of when the people turned out in record numbers to try to make a difference.
Looking at the current Israeli political landscape, it is difficult to see who or what can turn today’s protests into something tangible. Any momentum that could have crested in a wave for Blue and White and Benny Gantz fell completely flat the day Gantz announced that he was entering into coalition negotiations with Netanyahu. Many of those demanding Netanyahu’s resignation are almost as angry at Gantz for providing Netanyahu a lifeline. Ayman Odeh and the Joint List on their own are never going to be the standard bearer for the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis, even if they are the most logical opposition to Netanyahu on the issues and on pure personal animosity. Labor jumped at the chance to join the government, and what remains of Meretz is too small and ideologically narrow to lead anything.
The only option out there is Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid-Telem, and while Lapid is second to none in his anti-Netanyahu bonafides and his insistence that Netanyahu’s corruption makes him unfit for office, he has a number of obstacles in his path. Similarly to Kadima, it will be hard for Lapid and his brand of proud centrism to capture the imagination of the protestors; mass public protests and centrism are not a particularly comfortable fit. Lapid is also not new to the scene, and while experience in politics is generally an advantage, in this case a fresh face would have an easier time capitalizing on the protests’ energy. To his credit, Lapid recognized the potency of the protestors’ message early on and has done everything he can to publicly support them. But there are factors beyond his control given Yesh Atid’s historical positioning that will make it exceedingly difficult for his party to pick up an additional ten to fifteen seats just off opposition to Netanyahu, much of which he has already captured.
Perhaps the best way to view these protests is to compare them to Turkey’s Gezi Park protests of 2013. There too, impassioned Turks took to the streets to protest Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule and call for his resignation, and despite their passion and willingness to show up day after day, Turkey’s political opposition had no way of capitalizing on it. It enabled Erdogan to tar the protestors as anarchists looking to destroy Turkey, not engage with their grievances, and ultimately weather the storm without having to change a thing. This is because protests that are not eventually married to the political process have almost no chance of success, of achieving their aims, or even accomplishing genuine reform. There is no guarantee that the anti-Netanyahu protests will have the same ending, but this is looking like an awfully familiar movie.