As Netanyahu Panics, an Opportunity Emerges in Israel
Posted by David Harris-Gershon
Originally published on Tikkun Daily
The largest protest in Israel’s history overwhelmed the senses on Saturday evening, with over 300,000 citizens – spanning nearly all ages and political affiliations – swarming the country’s streets and squares, the throngs largely united around a host of economic issues.
To put this number in perspective, approximately 4 percent of the country’s population took to the streets, which in the United States would equal approximately 12 million.
Such numbers clearly have unnerved Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his cabinet. The first response heard from the prime minister’s camp in the wake of the protests was to downplay the numbers, to deny that those counting heads had done an accurate job.
Netanyahu’s initial response was not only tone deaf, its reflexiveness revealed just how concerning the protests have become to Israel’s governing class, for downplaying the force of the protests that occurred on Saturday is akin to standing in a burning building and downplaying how hot it is. It was a moment of denial, a moment of panicked desperation.
Netanyahu’s initial response was the first sign of panic that emerged from his government. The next sign came when, on Sunday, members of Netanyahu’s cabinet began sounding the security alarms, making statements difficult to view as anything but unfortunate and transparent attempts to distract from the protests.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was reported to have said the following in the wake of the protests:
“The Palestinian Authority is getting ready for bloodshed on a scale we haven’t seen,” he said. “The more they speak about non-violent action the more they are preparing for bloodshed.” Lieberman talked about a scenario in which tens of thousands of Palestinians try to force their way through a checkpoint.
Joining the chorus was Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who on Sunday warned of increased activities from Hamas, of “additional attempts beneath the surface to carry out terror activities, not only via rocket fire, but also by other means.”
On Sunday, Netanyahu moved away from his defensive stance, pledging to do everything within his power to address the economic concerns largely driving these protests, forming an economic team charged with generating solutions to Israel’s cost-of-living problems. But even the formation of the committee has so far proved problematic, with reports that Netanyahu is struggling to find anyone outside of his government who is willing to participate. Indeed, the committee has, to this point, only one person on it who is not a current government minister.
That many top economic minds in Israel are refusing to join the committee is perhaps a sign of how weak they view his position, how concerned they are by his stability, how little faith they have in Netanyahu’s response.
While questions abound regarding how Netanyahu is going to tackle a popular movement that is supported by 88 percent of Israelis, questions also abound as to how protest leaders are going to respond in the wake of Netanyahu’s diminished standing.
Up until this point, protest leaders have been reticent to adopt geopolitical, human rights issues related to the Palestinians into these “social justice” protests. This reticence has certainly not been due to any blindness on their part regarding how settlement subsidies and housing costs are related, or of the discordance in calling for social justice as the occupation continues.
Such reticence has been due to a fear that including geopolitical issues would break popular support for the protests.
However, signs that geopolitical concerns may force their way into the protests were seen on Saturday night. The Palestinian writer Uda Basharat spoke at the rally in Tel Avvi of the need for the protests to include the concerns of all people, Jews and Arabs alike. And groups supporting the inclusion of geopolitical issues, including settlement construction and the occupation, were slightly more visible on Saturday.
As Netanyahu panics, as his position weakens, protest leaders will have to make a calculation as calls increase for them to expand the struggle to include geopolitical issues: would doing so serve to weaken their position within the Israeli body politic? Would talking about the settlements serve as a wedge capable of derailing the intense momentum and support these protests have generated?
With Netanyahu reeling, and with support for the protests at obscene levels, such a move could conceivably come from protest leaders. If it does, Netanyahu’s response could cement either the fate of his rule or the fate of the protest movement.
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