Can a Protest Movement Topple Netanyahu?

The absence of a government plan to deal with the economic crisis, along with a second wave of COVID-19, has triggered a surge in opposition.


Call it the Jerusalem pilgrimage of summer 2020. Every Saturday night, thousands of young people from around Israel gather outside the prime minister’s residence, on Balfour Street, beating drums, blowing whistles, and holding signs quoting biblical injunctions against bribery and demanding the resignation of Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces trial on three counts of corruption. Netanyahu, having presided over a plunging economy and a botched response to a second wave of COVID-19, finds his popularity slipping—although, according to polls, his Likud party would remain the largest after a new election. Netanyahu has dismissed the demonstrators as “anarchists” and “leftists”—read: elite Ashkenazis—while his son Yair, who tweeted his heartfelt wish that the protesters would die of the coronavirus, has mocked them as “aliens,” extraterrestrials. His father “finds them amusing,” Yair told an interviewer.

On a recent Saturday night, some demonstrators wore sparkling antennae and green masks, and carried posters with drawings of ET. Proud Alien, one read. Another proclaimed: I’m here from the planet Jupiter. The planet’s Hebrew name, Tsedek, means “justice.” The posters were mostly hand-drawn, expressions of the intensely personal way Israelis relate to their country. Strangers gave one another a thumbs-up for a particularly clever slogan. There were dozens of Israeli flags.

For all of Netanyahu’s attempts to portray the protesters as marginal, the crowds on Balfour Street were defiantly mainstream. One young man held a sign that read: I’m here for my grandfather who is broken-hearted. Another, My grandmother says: Thank you, Bibi. Now enough. The mostly secular young people instinctively drew on biblical and Jewish imagery. There was a poster with a drawing of a golden calf protesting Netanyahu’s hedonism; a sign quoting the biblical command to maintain the purity of the Israelite camp; and T-shirts printed with the opening verses of the Book of Lamentations, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. Protesters sang a children’s Hanukkah song: “Be gone, darkness! Disperse before the light!”

The anarchists and extraterrestrials were there to defend the Israeli ethos against a corrupt leader who has betrayed it, and whose every decision, in the midst of a national emergency, seems calculated to ensure that he evades prison. The leader who once embodied the cause of Jewish survival now cares only for his own. These young people, not long ago soldiers, still believe in an Israel of sacrifice and humility. And the imperial family on Balfour Street—issuing vulgar, hateful tweets and accused of accepting illegal gifts of cigars and champagne and routinely abusing domestic help—deeply offends their Israeliness.

For months, the protests on Balfour Street were mostly small and marginal, older people grimly bearing black flags and signs that read, in English, Crime Minister. But the absence of a government plan to deal with the economic crisis, along with the second wave of COVID-19, has triggered an enraged and joyful youth revolt, mostly middle-class kids fighting for a receding Israeli dream. The swelling crowds on Balfour Street would almost certainly be far greater if not for the fear of contagion.

Protesters during a demonstration against Netanyahu on August 1 in Jerusalem. The protests have become a recurring feature amid discontent over the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Netanyahu's looming corruption trial. (Amir Levy / Getty)

Only three months ago, Israel appeared to be a COVID-19 success story, and its hero was Netanyahu. He acted quickly and decisively, appearing regularly on television to explain the severity of the challenge. He closed the borders and enforced mask wearing with fines. Israelis are adept at dealing with existential threats, which is precisely how Netanyahu framed the pandemic, warning of mass casualties and urging the public to treat the coronavirus as a war. World leaders turned to Jerusalem for inspiration on how to defeat the pandemic. Netanyahu’s popularity among voters surged: Not only had he kept Israelis secure and prosperous in a volatile Middle East, now he was keeping us healthy too.

What went wrong was a combination of arrogance and carelessness—the Israeli tendency to squander victories. After prematurely declaring the end of the COVID-19 threat, Netanyahu promptly lost interest. He stopped briefing the media, and no one seemed in charge.

The fateful misstep was reopening schools—along with a decision, spurred by a late-spring heat wave, to relax restrictions on mask wearing. The spike in new cases was immediate and drastic. According to Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s COVID-19 coordinator, the country now has the world’s proportionally highest rate of infections. (The mortality rate, though, remains low.)

It wasn’t all Netanyahu’s fault. Israelis deal well with short-term emergencies, such as the first wave of the coronavirus, but less well with systemic crises. Even after mask wearing was reimposed, many simply ignored the rules. Still, Netanyahu, who deservedly took credit for the country’s initial success, can hardly evade responsibility now.

Netanyahu’s main concern is preventing his trial, by passing a law that would exempt a sitting prime minister from criminal charges. Doing so, though, would require a right-wing majority coalition. In recent days, Netanyahu has seemed intent on dismantling the unity government he formed in May with the centrist Blue and White party, which opposes immunity for the prime minister, and on moving to hold a new election—the fourth in less than two years. While the past three elections ended in a stalemate, this time the opposition is in disarray, and Netanyahu hopes to form a government without centrist partners. Still, his right-wing coalition partners are hardly keen on new elections and are trying to dissuade him.

Netanyahu has another incentive for calling elections now: to preempt his rotation agreement with the Blue and White leader, Benny Gantz, who is scheduled to become prime minister in November 2021. Netanyahu, regarded as a serial liar by politicians across the spectrum, promised Gantz in March that, given the national emergency, there would be no “schticks and tricks” and he would honor the agreement. Public reaction at the time ranged from incredulity to ridicule. Netanyahu, wrote the commentator Ben Caspit in the newspaper Maariv, is so used to lying that he can pass a lie-detector test only when he isn’t telling the truth.

By all accounts, Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, is an honorable man. But in joining the coalition, he violated his promise to voters never to sit in government with Netanyahu. His reasoning was likewise honorable: He sought to spare the country a fourth round of elections during a time of national crisis. Inevitably, though, Gantz’s popularity has plummeted, and his party has splintered into two factions—one in government, the other in opposition—whose leaders despise each other almost as much as they despise Netanyahu. Having effectively destroyed Blue and White, Netanyahu, the great devourer of Israeli politics, can move to elections, knowing he faces no real opposition, except on the streets outside his home.

Netanyahu and Gantz (Ariel Schalit / AFP / Getty)

Twice before in Israel’s history, protest movements helped bring down prime ministers: Golda Meir in 1974 and Menachem Begin in 1983. Both leaders fell as a result of failure during wartime and resigned in exhaustion and defeat.

But Netanyahu, as his son Yair has noted, is made of different stuff. It is almost inconceivable that he would voluntarily resign. One reason he so desperately clings to power is that he genuinely believes he is the victim of a left-wing conspiracy to topple him. They can’t defeat me at the polls, he has repeatedly said, and so they are trying to bring me down in the courts and in the streets.

The accusation of a left-wing conspiracy is absurd. The corruption investigation into Netanyahu was led by a police commissioner whom Netanyahu appointed and who lived in a West Bank settlement; the attorney general is likewise a Netanyahu appointee, and comes from a Likud family. Some of the state’s witnesses were the prime minister’s former close aides. If anything, this is an internal right-wing reckoning with the limits of power.

And yet Netanyahu’s martyrdom complex is real, with deep roots in Zionist history. In the 1930s and ’40s, when the Labor Party controlled the Zionist movement, right-wingers were treated as outcasts. A formative moment that shaped left-right relations for decades occurred in 1933, when the Labor Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff was assassinated on the Tel Aviv beach. Labor blamed the right: A right-wing activist, Abraham Stavsky, was convicted by a British court, though he was later exonerated. In the right-wing mythos, Labor’s campaign against Stavsky was proof that the left would go to any lengths, even framing an innocent man, to discredit its rivals. In an ironic twist, Stavsky was killed in 1948 when Labor Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, fearing a coup, ordered the Israeli army to sink the Altalena, a right-wing weapons ship, off the coast of Tel Aviv. The betrayal was complete.

For Netanyahu, raised by his father on right-wing grievances, Stavsky’s fate isn’t just history but a cautionary tale: The left will stop at nothing to gain power. At a recent family memorial for Netanyahu’s brother Yoni, the fallen hero of the 1976 Entebbe rescue, when Israeli commandos freed more than 100 Israelis held hostage by Palestinian and German hijackers, the prime minister addressed Yoni: “At least you’ve been spared seeing what they’ve done to me.” It was a revealing glimpse into the psyche of the otherwise circumspect Netanyahu. Yoni was his closest friend, perhaps his only real friend; in the Netanyahu family, Yoni’s memory is a last surviving sacrament, and his memorial is not an opportunity for spin.

In the war of survival against the left, all is permitted. When members of La Familia, a group of violent far-right fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, recently attacked anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, the prime minister’s condemnation was half-hearted and self-pitying, claiming that he was the real victim of incitement. And yet sometimes the incitement is not what it seems: Facebook recently took down pages purporting to be from protesters that either called for Netanyahu’s assassination or compared him to Hitler, after they turned out to be fake.

So far, the protests, which haven’t attracted Likud’s working-class Mizrahi base, pose no real threat to Netanyahu. “Until the poor start demonstrating here, nothing will change,” Shula Mola, a leader of Israel’s Ethiopian community, told me during Saturday night’s protest.

Still, with more than a fifth of the workforce unemployed, and Netanyahu’s base especially hard-hit, that could change. Netanyahu outraged even some of his own supporters when he recently pushed through Parliament a retroactive tax exemption—for himself. Coming at a time of economic desperation, the move reinforced the image of an aloof leader hopelessly out of touch with his people.

For all the disarray in the opposition, elections are still a risk for Netanyahu. A master of the last-minute electoral surprise, he knows that much can happen between now and a fourth vote. And so he hesitates, moving closer to the edge but not yet dismantling the government. Can even Netanyahu continue to defy the odds and survive economic collapse, a coronavirus relapse, and a criminal trial?

Inevitably, a career built on betraying political allies demands its karmic debt. Two right-wing parties—Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina—sit in the opposition precisely because of personal antipathy toward Netanyahu. Creating a narrow right-wing coalition, though, will almost certainly require wooing one of those parties. Lieberman, once Netanyahu’s closest aide, is committed to bringing him down and is beyond reach. That leaves Bennett, likewise a disillusioned former Netanyahu aide who detests the prime minister, and who is surging in the polls, siphoning off votes from Likud. Bennett, whose party is nationalist-religious but who aspires to cross-sectoral leadership, may sense his moment. In the event of new elections, might Bennett condition his entry into a right-wing coalition on Likud replacing its leader?

On Saturday night, a group of young religious men in knitted yarmulkes—the kids who tend to vote for Bennett—gathered around a sign that read: The right also wants Netanyahu to go. They were only a handful of demonstrators, hardly a sign of the times. But it was a tantalizing glimpse into Netanyahu’s ultimate nightmare.