A perfect storm of grievances has enveloped Israel just as a second coronavirus lockdown appears inevitable and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems close to losing control of his government.
Protests were held in more than 200 cities and highway junctions all across Israel on Saturday night, and on Sunday, Netanyahu said money from the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein was funding the mounting demonstrations.
Hard-liner Netanyahu heads a rickety coalition formed only in May with former rival Benny Gantz, a centrist former army chief, following a year and a half in which Israelis went to the polls three times, never giving either leader enough support to form a workable government without the other.
On Sunday morning, Netanyahu’s only comment about the rallies, which drew thousands in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, was to repeat a conspiracy theory that the Wexner Foundation, an American philanthropy, is funneling Epstein money to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which he is using to “organize the protests.”
Police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the peaceful protesters, arresting 28.
Netanyahu has reason to be rattled, and Israelis have reason to be frustrated: Since May 17, when it looked like the country had vanquished the coronavirus and a six-week lockdown was lifted, cases of COVID-19 have soared to previously unseen levels.
Hospitals are filling up. Unemployment, which stood at 4 percent in early March, is at nearly 25 percent, and the government has no plan to help the unemployed or to rescue the economy. But the elephant in the room remains Netanyahu himself, whose trial for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust resumed Sunday morning.
The most theatrical part of his trial, when Netanyahu will be obliged to be present in court three days a week, to hear the testimony of witnesses including many of his one-time closest aides, will begin in January 2021.
Netanyahu and three former associates were indicted in January in three cases involving the prime minister’s alleged efforts to control various aspects of the Israeli media. He is the first Israeli prime minister indicted for crimes while in office.
Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to attempt to scuttle his trial, including accusing his attorney general of perpetrating a coup d’état, attempting to pass legislation that would have granted him immunity, requesting special parliamentary immunity and, for the first time in Israeli history, closing down two branches of government.
Bypassing parliamentary approval, Netanyahu used emergency powers acquired to impose the nationwide corona quarantine to shutter the judiciary and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, a measure never before seen in Israel, not even in wartime, and postponed the start of his trial by two months.
Opponents accused him of using the pandemic as cover for a power grab. In March, dozens of Israelis began congregating at highway junctures or outside the Knesset carrying Israel’s blue-and-white flag adorned with a smaller black flag warning of the threat to Israel’s democracy.
By April, thousands were participating in weekly Black Flag protests across the country, and the initiative garnered international attention for its dramatic, socially distanced demonstrations in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
The popular movement has become a significant political player. Every Saturday night, it attracts tens of thousands to Rabin Square, to Jerusalem’s Paris Square, in front of Netanyahu’s official residence, and to highway junctions all over the country.
Netanyahu and his allies are clearly nervous. On Sunday, Miki Zohar, the prime minister’s coalition chairman, tweeted that with the pandemic as cover, the protests are “a coordinated propaganda campaign orchestrated by leftists, with almost the complete backing of the media, to topple the right wing.”
Zohar added darkly that “many forces want to stymie” Netanyahu.
Leaders of Saturday’s protests demanded Netanyahu’s resignation over the criminal charges, and many participants wore masks emblazoned with the words CRIME MINISTER or carried posters accusing him of acting like the KGB.
Others sarcastically invited Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s eldest son and Israel’s Donald Trump Jr., “to party” in the streets. Yair Netanyahu, 28, is the originator of the Epstein conspiracy theory adopted by his father. On Friday, he called the demonstrators Nazis. On Saturday, he said Israel’s civil servants—in particular the attorney general—were “terrorists.”
Just four months ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was on top of the world. With his trial deferred, Israel under curfew, and COVID-19 under control, he boasted that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz told an interviewer he “thanked God” for a conversation he had with Netanyahu, in which the Israeli warned him that the novel coronavirus could overtake Europe, and urged that he “wake up and do something.”
“Israel needs a corona emergency government,” Netanyahu declared two months later, when he inaugurated his new government. “This is the only way to move forward.”
Yet since its inception, the coronavirus cabinet has been about as functional as the Keystone Kops. The reckless reopening of schools exuberantly announced by Netanyahu when presenting his new ministers triggered the tsunami of COVID-19 for which the government was woefully unprepared.
On Friday morning, Netanyahu ordered all restaurants closed, only to reverse himself that afternoon, spooked by a mutiny of restaurateurs threatening to take to the streets if ordered to close up again. The weekend was still a wash for most restaurants, as customers had already been told not to come.
In a recent Zoom meeting with small business owners and entrepreneurs, Netanyahu was blasted for the dysfunction.
“There is a feeling that this crisis is not being managed,” one man said. Another added, “We won’t survive.” In leaked footage, one woman is seen yelling at the prime minister, “We need the money now, before the 10th, because people are collapsing. I have 150 workers. We don’t know what to do.”
Netanyahu then tried to shift the blame to Eran Yaakov, head of Israel’s tax authority, who was also on the call. “Eran, these people are not lying. Cut them checks now. Or not checks, money transfers.”
A July 14 poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute showed a massive 75 percent of Israelis “disappointed, angry or alienated regarding the government’s handling of coronavirus.” Trust in Netanyahu sank to 29 percent.
Orel Kimche, a Tel Avivian chef, announced the closure of his beloved restaurant, Popina, in an anguished Instagram post directed at Netanyahu. “Now it is really personal and really political,” he wrote, after struggling and failing to get any government assistance to keep his business alive. Announcing the closure and the firing of his staff, Kimchi said his evening would be spent with close family and friends. “We will sit here, eat, drink, rejoice, and wish for the day you will no longer be in power, when you will be far from the eye and far from the heart. You have lost every semblance of humanity… You’ve crushed people with your own hands—never forget it!!! You’ve made people lose property, lose their lives.”
After talks with the finance ministry collapsed, underpaid and understaffed Israeli nurses are going on strike on Monday. The teacher’s union is threatening to prevent the reopening of schools on Sept. 1 if health and safety concerns are not addressed.
New COVID-19 diagnoses have risen from about 10 cases a day in mid-May to an out-of-control 2,000-plus this weekend, as Israel clocked its 409th death from the disease.
The tracking system deployed by Israel’s security agency, at Netanyahu’s insistence, to trace the whereabouts of citizens diagnosed with COVID-19 has brought him only opprobrium and ridicule. No other democracy adopted such a measure. Israel’s Privacy Protection Authority, a watchdog agency, slammed the civilian use of a tool created to follow terror suspects. Then, an early bug resulted in health care workers being sent home. This week, the health ministry admitted that fully 60 percent of those who appeal being identified as people exposed to COVID-19, are, in fact, false alarms.
No “corona czar” has been managing Israel’s efforts to fight the virus. Gantz’s offer to use the army’s logistics branch flopped when the candidate realized he’d be used as a puppet—or as a fall guy.
There is no economic plan. An initial scheme, granting every single Israeli a one-time lump-sum payment of $218, was mocked and widely panned before being abandoned. A new almost $2 billion plan approved by ministers on Sunday may not have enough Knesset support to pass as a bill.
“Netanyahu is losing his grip,” writes political analyst Chemi Shalev. “Alone at the top, Netanyahu is bearing the brunt of Israel’s summer of fear, loathing and discontent... Israel’s resurgent coronavirus pandemic is shaking the foundations of Israeli society and politics as we’ve come to know them.”