The road to Israeli politics may begin with protests - analysis

Of the country’s 22 previous chiefs-of-staff, all of whom were lieutenant generals, all but three have gone into politics.

 Israeli MKs are seen in the Knesset plenum following a day of voting on March 22, 2023 (photo credit: NOAM MOSKOVITZ/KNESSET)
Israeli MKs are seen in the Knesset plenum following a day of voting on March 22, 2023

For decades, the surest path into Israeli politics has run through the army.

Israeli parents, keen on their sons one day sitting around the cabinet table, would have been wise in the past to tell them that if someday they wanted a career in politics, they should first become a general in the IDF.

Just consider the numbers: Of the country’s 22 previous chiefs of staff, all of whom were lieutenant-generals, all but three went into politics. That is to say nothing of the lesser brigadier-generals and major-generals – and of senior officials in other security branches – who have a long history of doffing their uniforms and finding their way into the Knesset.

A military career has proven itself a tremendous springboard into Israeli politics.

Alternative routes into politics 

But it is not the only one. Being a leader of a grassroots protest or a prominent activist in a large-scale social movement has also proven, over the years, to be an excellent entrée into politics.

 Thousands of Israelis gather in Tel Aviv in protest following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, on March 26, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Thousands of Israelis gather in Tel Aviv in protest following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, on March 26, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

And that is especially relevant today, with the country facing one of the most significant protest movements in its history. All of a sudden, people whom most of the nation have never before heard of – people like Shikma Bressler, Gonen Ben Itzhak and Eran Schwartz – are in the news and in studios talking about protests and strikes and days of disruption.

Today, they are impacting the country behind the scenes; tomorrow, if history is any indication, it is likely they will be doing so from the Knesset’s center stage. Today, they might deny political ambitions and say they want to return to their regular jobs, but some will undoubtedly be courted in the next election by parties looking for fresh faces. And tomorrow, they may very well end up in the corridors of power.

A movement without a leader

This protest movement has been characterized as one without a leader. And, indeed, there is no one organization or leader behind it; rather, there are many, and they sit on a steering committee determining the overall shape and tenor of the protests. Among those heavily involved in the demonstrations are a number of former chiefs of staff - Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Halutz - who would love to use it as a vehicle back into political life. A more likely scenario, however, is that younger, previously anonymous personalities, will leverage this experience into public office.

Bressler seems the likeliest candidate. Articulate and unflappable, she is increasingly appearing on network news programs as the voice of this particular revolution. Her credentials were enhanced two weeks ago when she was briefly arrested during a national “Day of Disruption.” She has a picture on her Twitter feed showing her holding the national flag that brings to mind Marianne holding the French “Tricolore” in Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting of the July 1830 revolution, Liberty Leading the People.

Bressler, a physicist from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot involved in the CERN particle-accelerator project in Switzerland, was one of the founding members of the Black Flag protest movement that demonstrated against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2020-2021.

Another veteran of those demonstrations who has taken a central role in the current ones as well is Ben Itzhak. A lawyer and veteran of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), he founded the Crime Minister organization that was heavily involved in the Balfour Street protests against Netanyahu during the coronavirus pandemic.

Other potential politicians 

Other prominent individuals in the current demonstrations’ leadership are Schwartz, an ex-Israel Air Force pilot, educator and former director-general for social equality, and Nadav Gal-On, the son of former Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On.

If all or any of these individuals eventually find their way onto the national political stage, they would be following a well-worn path.

Consider the social-justice protests in the summer of 2011. Two of the leaders of those protests made their way into national politics: Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli.

Both were courted by the Labor Party, with Shaffir – at 27 – becoming the youngest-ever female MK. Both vied for the Labor Party leadership in 2019 but lost to Amir Peretz. Shmuli stayed on and served briefly as Labor, Welfare and Social Services minister, while Shaffir left the party to join a new one that floundered at the polls.

Peace Now, which began in 1978, when 348 reserve officers and soldiers wrote an open letter to then-prime minister Menachem Begin, calling on him to make territorial concessions for peace, is another protest movement that launched a number of political careers.

Among the founders of the group were Avshalom Villan and David “Dedi” Zucker, who went on to long careers as Meretz MKs, and Yuli Tamir and Avraham “Avrum” Burg, who eventually became Labor MKs. Tamir rose to become an education minister, and Burg became the speaker of the Knesset.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the settlement activist movement Gush Emunim – founded in 1974 – brought to prominence and served as a launch pad into politics for a number of its original members. Among Gush Emunim’s founders and early members who then went into politics were Haim Drukman, Hanan Porat, Eliezer Waldman and Ya’akov “Ketsele” Katz.

An earlier protest movement, the Black Panthers – which was founded in 1971 to fight against discrimination against Mizrahim and whose leaders Golda Meir famously described as “not nice people” – also launched a couple of political careers. Two of the movement’s leaders, Saadia Marciano and Charlie Biton, eventually went into politics, with Marciano entering the Knesset as a member of the left-wing Sheli Party and Biton serving a number of terms as a Hadash MK.

What these examples show is that protests and social movements bring their leaders national attention, with young leaders of demonstrations today often becoming MKs and ministers tomorrow.

It generally does not take long after the protests themselves peter out for the gravitational pull of politics to begin – and there is little reason to think that this time will be any different.