Analysis: Protest tells the tale of lessons learned

Analysis Protest tells

freeze protest 248.88 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
freeze protest 248.88
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
The signs at Wednesday night's mass demonstration in Jerusalem against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's moratorium order were large and numerous. "Only the Likud can," said one placard, playing cynically on the party's campaign slogan, and meaning that - in actuality - only the right-wing Likud could stop settlements. "Don't tell us what to do in our homeland while you occupy Iraq and Afghanistan," read another, directed at US President Barack Obama. And a third read, "Obama: We shall overcome." But the one sign that, more than any of the others, captured both the moment and the mood of the protest said, "Don't make the same mistake twice." These words were obviously directed at Netanyahu and were a reference to the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. Speaker after speaker took the podium at the protest and warned that the moratorium was a slippery slope that would - if not stopped in time - lead to a second disengagement. But "Don't make the same mistake twice" could also be directed at the protesters themselves, and both the tone of the demonstration and its timing were an indication that the organizers had internalized that message. Any massive, right-wing demonstration in the heart of Jerusalem automatically brings to mind the infamous protest against former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in Zion Square just prior to his assassination in 1995 - the one at which Netanyahu spoke against Oslo from a balcony, and at which the tone was particularly nasty. That was the protest where Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) plant Avishai Raviv distributed leaflets of Rabin in an SS uniform, while others handed out flyers with the prime minister dressed in a keffiyeh. If there is one thing that the organizers of Wednesday night's demonstration seemed to internalize, it was the need to prevent their protest from taking on the same type of feel, to prevent it from being hijacked by extremists who might do or say or print something that would lead the wider public to dismiss this protest as just another rally by the lunatic Right that amounted to little more than incitement. The organizers seemed to take pains to ensure that would not happen, and the speakers - while criticizing Netanyahu sharply for the moratorium - stayed clear of using super-charged words such as "traitor." They also gave a wide berth to divisive calls for soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlers or, in the spirit of the day, to refrain from protecting government officials handing out stop-work orders in the settlements. Outside of three yellow flags bearing a picture of assassinated Kach leader Meir Kahane, there were no signs that could be interpreted as having a particularly incendiary message on the street, located just a few hundred meters from the Prime Minister's Residence. Insulting, yes, both to Netanyahu and Obama; but incendiary, no. The mood in the crowd - an overwhelmingly young and religious crowd - was more that of a religious youth group event than of a gathering of radicals on the verge of beating down the gates. This was more Bnei Akiva summer camp, less last summer's protests in Teheran. The timing, too, indicated that the organizers had internalized another warning against making the same mistake twice. The mistake they wanted to avoid this time was waiting too long before taking to the streets to battle the policies of a right-wing prime minister considered a long-time advocate of the settlement movement. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon first began talking about disengagement toward the end of 2003. It took months, however, before the settlement opposition against him mobilized and there was an anti-disengagement rally of the size that took place Wednesday night in the capital. It took a while before the settlement leadership - who trusted Sharon inherently - realized that he had indeed charted a new and much different course. It took a while before they were able to mobilize people to take to the streets against him and his policies. Not this time. Even before Netanyahu announced the housing moratorium last month, the settlement leadership was meeting in an "emergency session" to fight it. The settlement leaders gave Sharon an extended benefit of the doubt. They are not doing the same with Netanyahu. "The story of the settlers as suckers ended five years ago," National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari shouted from the podium. In other words, he was telling the protesters, don't make the same mistake twice - the overwhelming theme of the evening on a number of different planes.