Analysis: Bibi faces Israel’s summer of discontent

Benjamin Netanyahu is facing mounting public pressure as Israel is rocked by the country’s largest demonstrations since the 2011 social justice protests.

Thousands of people took part in demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem at the weekend, protesting against both the prime minister and his government’s bungled handling of a second wave of coronavirus cases.

There were further large protests in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening, with demonstrators marching from Netanyahu’s official residence to the Knesset and back. Media reports suggest there had been a “largely carnival mood” at the demonstration. However, there were later 34 arrests for breach of the police and attacks on police officers.

Saturday evening’s protest in Jerusalem was the fourth time in a week that demonstrators had gathered outside Netanyahu’s home calling for the prime minister to resign.

Twenty-eight people were arrested in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on Saturday after a minority of demonstrators clashed with the police. Water cannons were deployed to disperse some protesters, who blocked roads and attempted to break through crash barriers.

The demonstrations came as Netanyahu’s lawyers failed in their bid on Sunday to once again delay the opening of his trial on multiple corruption charges.

The protests are not being organised by a single organisation, but instead bring together a variety of groups. But, in a sign of potential danger for Netanyahu, self-employed people, who are angry at the lack of government support to help them cope with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, are linking up with the so-called “Black Flag” protests which are focused on the corruption charges faced by the prime minister.

A Facebook post advertising the Tel Aviv protests on Saturday read: “We are just tired of not being seen, not being heard, not being cared about…The time has come for you [the government] to get it together, get up in the morning and work for the citizens, instead of dealing with nonsense. Because without us, there is no country.”

Observers have noted that the long-standing protests against Netanyahu in Jerusalem had mostly been attended by older activists, but the last week has seen an infusion of support from young people in their 20s and 30s, which have seen the number of attendees triple in size.

The anger on the streets appears to reflect growing public frustration with Netanyahu. Last week, a poll found that only 29.5 percent of Israelis trust the prime minister to deal with the coronavirus – down from 57.5 percent in early April and 47 percent last month. Overall, 75 percent of the public had negative comments on the government’s handling of the virus. Other surveys have also registered the prime minister’s plummeting ratings.

Israel’s initial handling of the pandemic – with a tight and early lockdown – was widely praised as one of the world’s best. But, after restrictions began to be lifted in May, cases have surged again in recent weeks, reaching close to 2,000 a day, with 400 deaths.

“Israel’s resurgent coronavirus pandemic is shaking the foundations of Israeli society and politics as we’ve come to know them,” Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev argued on Sunday. “Fear of the returning plague and anxiety over its dire economic impact are undermining the Israeli public’s long-held sense of security and wellbeing. Pent-up rage and frustrations are spilling out into angry street protests, with Benjamin Netanyahu increasingly singled out for blame.”

As Shalev noted, the focus on Netanyahu reflects the long-serving prime minister’s increasingly centralised and autocratic style of governing. “Netanyahu is encountering the downside of his decade-long personal domination of Israeli governance and politics,” he wrote. “Alone at the top, Netanyahu is bearing the brunt of Israel’s summer of fear, loathing and discontent.”

Corruption allegations

To add to the prime minister’s woes, the judges at Netanyahu’s corruption trial decided on Sunday that witnesses will begin giving testimony up to three times a week starting in January. Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust – allegations he vehemently denies – in three cases. Commentators suggest the ruling, which will see Netanyahu spend much of the working week in a court room, casts further doubt on his claims that he can continue to run the country and clear his name of the charges against him. Netanyahu is the first sitting prime minister to go on trial.

The procedural hearing saw the prime minister’s defence lawyers ask for the case to be postponed for six months to prepare its strategy. Netanyahu’s team also argued that coronavirus restrictions could harm his defence. One of Netanyahu’s lawyers, Yossi Segev, said: “It will be hard for me to face a masked witness and see if he’s telling the truth”. He added: “I came here today when I am not ready. I suggest we meet here again in six months, after the coronavirus, when we will be smarter.”

The three-judge panel rejected the request, however, and made clear that the trial will go forward on schedule, even in the case of lockdown. Netanyahu is also involved in an increasingly fraught wrangle over the payment of his lawyers. Two weeks ago, the State Comptroller Committee denied the prime minister’s request to pay his lawyers from donations from wealthy friends and relatives and told him to return funds he has already received. The committee’s ruling came after it sought a legal opinion from attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, a former Netanyahu ally who brought the indictments against the prime minister. Unpaid fees have seen several lawyers quit Netanyahu’s legal team over the past year.

The judges’ determination to press on with the trial received the implicit backing of the new justice minister, Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, who said that court activity would not be limited even if the country returned to a full lockdown. The former Likud justice minister, Amir Ohana, was sharply criticised when he effectively delayed the formal start of Netanyahu’s case earlier this year under the cover of the coronavirus. It eventually began two month’s late in May.

U-turns galore

The return of Netanyahu’s legal difficulties to the headlines this week will add to growing criticism that the prime minister has been distracted by his own personal affairs at a time of national crisis, and that the government wasted vital time after Israel’s initial success in containing the virus.

“Where the government should have spent those hard-won weeks of a ‘flattened curve’ building out an epidemiological ‘tweezers’ capability — the ability to mass-test the population, pluck infected individuals out of the general population and into isolation, and allow the general economy to remain open without repeated waves of shutdowns – Netanyahu instead was focused elsewhere,” suggested the Times of Israel senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur on Sunday.

This impression has been reinforced by the fact that the Knesset Finance Committee spent a full day last month discussing retroactive tax breaks on state funding for his villa in Caesarea. Amid a public outcry, Netanyahu later admitted that, while his request for the tax break was justified, “the timing was wrong and that I regret”.

The prime minister also spent much of last month focused on the issue of West Bank annexation – despite polling showing that a majority of Israelis do not support the step and only 3.5 percent view it as a priority as the country wrestles with a second wave of coronavirus cases and the economic fallout from the pandemic.

As he battles that second wave and the country’s increasing economic distress – while also attempting to restore his public standing – Netanyahu and his government have appeared anything but a steady hand on the tiller.

Last week, the prime minister suddenly announced a huge government handout to all Israelis. The payments, which ranged from $219 for individuals to up to $875 for families with three or more children, followed a new package for the self-employed, in addition to a payout of $29 billion in aid previously pledged by the state.

But Netanyahu’s move swiftly backfired, with criticism focused on the fact that the costly handouts would go to all Israelis regardless of their income or need. Ministers and Finance Ministry officials, who had not been consulted on the plan, soon raised their concerns, with Netanyahu’s Labor and Blue and White coalition partners publicly raising their objections. “The question is not whether we should give money to the public — we should give even more — but rather to whom it should go,” Itzik Shmuli, the Labor social welfare minister, said in an interview with Army Radio. “A distribution mechanism that gives everyone the same, gives too little to those who need while those who don’t need get too much. There are billions here that must be divided differently, in a just and economically sensible way.”

Earlier this week, Netanyahu’s office reversed course and announced that wealthy individuals and senior civil servants would no longer receive the payments, while higher amounts would be given to the sick, people with disabilities, struggling immigrants, the unemployed and certain categories of the elderly.

Attempts by ministers to tighten coronavirus restrictions have also seen a series of embarrassing u-turns in recent days. Late on Thursday night, the cabinet attempted to reimpose a partial lockdown, restricting the size of gatherings; closing beaches, malls, museums, tourist sites and other public spaces on weekends; and ordering restaurants to only serve takeout and delivery. The announcement provoked a wave of criticism, including from senior doctors who questioned the scientific basis for a weekend lockdown. Angry restauranteurs, who had already bought food for the weekend, threatened to defy the order, leading the government to backtrack and delay the restriction coming in until Tuesday morning. On Tuesday, however, there was further confusion as a Knesset committee overruled ministers and allowed restaurants to immediately reopen.

Budget bust-up

The sense of crisis has been compounded by a growing political spat between Netanyahu and deputy prime minister Benny Gantz over budget negotiations. Under Israeli law, a new government is required to pass a budget within 100 days meaning the current coalition has until the end of August to reach a deal. But Netanyahu and Gantz are now reportedly at logger-heads over the prime minister’s desire to pass a budget for 2020 only. Under the coalition agreement, the government is supposed to negotiate a two-year budget covering 2020 and 2021. The dispute could have important political ramifications. The Knesset will be dissolved, and an election will be held in the summer, if a 2021 budget is not approved by 31 March. Crucially, however, Netanyahu would remain as caretaker prime minister. If, however, the government collapses for any other reason, Gantz – who under, the coalition deal, is due to take the helm from Netanyahu next autumn – would be caretaker prime minister.

The budget row will fuel suspicion that Netanyahu, who used the coronavirus crisis to force Gantz into coalition with him less than three months ago, is already planning his next political move. That suspicion, however, is likely to simply increase the growing public discontent with a leader whose prime concern amid a pandemic appears to be clinging to power.