Where are the protests against Netanyahu?

Where is the public? Where are the protesters? After such a harsh indictment, why is no one camping out in a 24-hour protest? Where is Blue and White?

The protest in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
The protest in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
On August 21, 2006, just a few days after a ceasefire had gone into effect ending the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, a group of IDF reservists marched to Jerusalem and set up a tent opposite the Prime Minister’s Office.
The march started with about 100 people who walked from the Castel – the scene of a fierce battle during the 1948 War of Independence – to the Rose Garden across from the PMO. From there it grew. The protesters, mostly reservists who had fought in Lebanon and returned home frustrated with the indecision they encountered on the battlefield, refused to move until something changed.
They were soon joined by thousands of Israelis furious over the stories they had heard from those who came back from combat.
For weeks they sat there, demanding that the government establish an official commission of inquiry into the failures of the war. Only after the state-appointed Winograd Committee began holding hearings in mid-September did the protest start to scatter.
But that was only their first success. By January, Dan Halutz, the IDF chief of staff during the war, would step down, and by June, defense minister Amir Peretz would be replaced.
Prime minister Ehud Olmert would hold on for two more years, but eventually he, too, would be toppled, a combination of Winograd’s harsh findings and the police investigations against him.
At the time, Benjamin Netanyahu was head of the opposition. His chief of staff was a young 34-year-old hi-tech entrepreneur who a year earlier had sold off his first company and made millions. His name was Naftali Bennett. Both men identified the protests as a political opportunity, and helped where they could behind the scenes and in the shadows. This included making some connections, bringing public relation specialists and advisers to the protests, and helping the leaders craft their messaging. Very few people knew of their involvement.
I mention this because it is a far cry from what is happening now after the official indictment of Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust last Thursday. Since then, it is as if there is no public outcry. People are barely taking to the streets and even if they do it is for an hour or so. No one is pitching a tent, like in 2006, across from Netanyahu’s office.
This is strange. Where is the public? Where are the protesters? After such a harsh indictment, why is no one camping out in a 24-hour protest? Where is Blue and White, the party that was established with the main aim of replacing Israel’s leadership?
Benny Gantz hasn’t made much noise since last Thursday’s earthquake announcement, besides issuing a couple of bland public statements – where is he? And where is Amir Peretz and Labor, the party that almost saved Netanyahu before the Knesset was dissolved in May?
Instead of people pitching tents and demanding that Netanyahu step down, we see thousands of people coming out to support the prime minister. Almost no one is calling for the opposite – that he go home, leave office and be tried for his alleged crimes.
AS ONE VETERAN political strategist told me this week: “This isn’t a political mistake, its political malpractice.”
The question is, why? Why isn’t it happening on its own? Why isn’t Blue and White doing anything to get people out to the streets? Why isn’t the party galvanizing the masses and trying to put pressure on Netanyahu the same way that he put pressure on Olmert in 2006?
On the one hand, history shows that these protests have the potential to work. Not only was the protest in 2006 a success, but so were the protests in the summer of 2011, when tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the cost of living in the country.
Netanyahu feared a political backlash and did everything he could do to turn the public discourse back to diplomatic and security affairs, ultimately leading to the controversial prisoner swap to release Gilad Schalit, which saw Netanyahu – who for years had opposed such exchanges – set free more than 1,000 Palestinian terrorists.
Public protests, by the way, have the ability not only to bring down someone’s political career, but also to jump-start one. Just ask Stav Shafir and Itzik Shmuli, two of the stars of the 2011 social protests who went on to join Labor and become two of the Knesset’s more prominent faces.
Gantz knows this. He is surrounded by some of Netanyahu’s former advisers, people who know about the events of 2006 and how to arrange a seemingly innocent apolitical protest, and then use it to advance a political agenda.
Israel Bachar, for example, is Gantz’s top strategist today, but back in the mid-2000s he was part of Netanyahu’s inner circle. He knows all about the events of 2006. But for some reason that is not what Blue and White is doing.
Senior party members claim that they have a plan, but as of now, it has escaped the public eye. The officials claim that to instigate a rally against Netanyahu will actually help him more than it will cause him damage. They warn that he will claim the indictment is political (he is saying that anyhow), and then point to the Blue and White protests as proof.
Instead, it seems that Gantz is simply counting on Likud or Gideon Sa’ar (See the Jerusalem Post’s interview on Page 13) to do the job for him – to get rid of Netanyahu and remove him from the party’s top slot.
Sa’ar, in fact, might actually be the biggest threat to Gantz, for a simple reason: if Sa’ar, for example, beats Netanyahu in Likud leadership primaries, why would Blue and White be needed? What does it stand for beyond removing Netanyahu?
There is already talk inside Blue and White that if such a scenario plays out and Netanyahu were replaced by someone else, the party of three – Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem – would likely fall apart. Its raison d’être of toppling Netanyahu will no longer be relevant.
For that reason, some of Gantz’s advisers who predicted that this might happen pushed him months ago to do everything possible to reach a deal with Likud. That way, even though he might pay a price in a future election for sitting for a few months under an indicted prime minister, he would at least get a chance to be prime minister. Now, if Netanyahu is ousted by Sa’ar or decides to resign because of public pressure, he may never get that chance.
Then there is the general public, which seems to simply be suffering from fatigue.
There is fatigue with the elections, with the investigations and with the divisive political rhetoric. People don’t know what to believe – and even when they do, they are too tired to act on it.
After two elections that didn’t do anything, and with the nation on the verge of a third, people might be right thinking that a protest won’t do anything either. So why bother?
Nevertheless, people need to take a stand. Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty, but by staying quiet, people are normalizing alleged corruption. Israel is setting a bad and dangerous example by allowing a prime minister indicted on a long list of grave corruption charges to stay in office.
Thankfully Israel is still a democracy, and people in a democracy have the right to make outrageous statements that might seem to have little to do with reality. That is within their right.
Some of those statements were available for all of Israel to hear and see on Tuesday night at the rally the Likud put together outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Under the banner “Stop the Coup,” the protest may have failed to draw the huge crowds its organizers had hoped to attract, but it did show what happens when people start to fall for the conspiracy theory that the police, prosecution and media joined hands to bring down Netanyahu.
I do not think that the police are perfect or that the prosecution is either. There are problems with many of Israel’s institutions, and they need to be carefully reviewed, considered and reformed. But those reforms need to be carried out by a government that will approach the issues without a personal vendetta or an ax to grind. Someone who has already been indicted or is already under police investigation – as are three other ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet – cannot.
There is, however, something disingenuous with the claims made by Netanyahu and his supporters that the police and the prosecution have set him up. I don’t recall people coming out to the streets to protest the same when Ehud Olmert was prime minister and faced numerous police investigations. Were the police also out to topple him, like they are said to be doing to Netanyahu and his right-wing government?
If that were true, it wouldn’t make sense according to Netanyahu’s logic, or that of the protesters who came out on Tuesday night. Why? Because for these Likud supporters, Ehud Olmert was a lefty, someone who was willing to give up parts of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians. If the police, prosecution and media are just against right-wing leaders like Netanyahu, then why did they go after Olmert?
And what about Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1977 stepped down as prime minister because police discovered that his wife had a bank account in the United States, which was illegal at the time. Were there protests then against the police for toppling a left-wing Labor leader? Did people claim that a coup was taking place?
I put these questions to one well-known right-wing activist, who explained to me that what happened to Rabin was a long time ago and therefore irrelevant, and that with Olmert, while it is true that he was left-wing, the police could not ignore the corruption since it was so obvious.
Sorry, but these claims are nonsense. The police have done their job over the years without regard to whether the prime minister comes from the Left or comes from the Right. That is how Ehud Barak found himself under investigation, and Ariel Sharon, and Olmert, and Netanyahu. Instead, the question that really needs to be asked is: why did this happen to all of them? What is it with Israel that this keeps on happening?
The people have to make their voices heard. With two weeks left before the country slides to a third election within a year, there is no waiting. Now is the time.