In a televised national address on Wednesday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out parts of an economic-stimulus package intended to ease the financial burden of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Yet in addition to outlining parts of a plan for jumpstarting the economy, Netanyahu addressed a growing phenomenon of left-wing civil unrest.
“The conspiracy industry exists in Israel; it is simply unbelievable. I heard about a public representative who is calling for a civil rebellion,” he stated.
The “public representative” is head of the opposition Yair Lapid. Not only is he agitating public demonstrations, but he has repeatedly warned that aggrieved citizens could turn violent.
In an interview with Reuters week, Lapid stated that:
“We are talking to people who are becoming more and more desperate and angry, who feel, and rightly so, that the country has deserted them at their hardest hour.”
“We are trying to be responsible … to calm things down, telling people, ‘You know violence is not the answer,’ ” he said.
“But it’s getting harder by the day … I sympathise with the anger and I also worry about the possibility of violence as a result of this anger. What I am trying to do is not to encourage it but to raise a red flag as to what might happen.”
A few days earlier, Lapid told Maariv, “It is going towards violence. People are in despair because they don’t have what to eat.”
Just days after Lapid’s remarks, more than 10,000 Israelis joined a protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night against the government’s handling of the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Almost on cue, the protest turned violent with various acts of vandalism, including the setting ablaze of garbage dumpsters. A brick was thrown through the window of a local bank branch. Three officers were lightly injured, and 12 protesters were arrested.
While Saturday night’s protest was the largest to date over the past several months, it was not limited only to financially aggrieved small business owners and recently unemployed Israelis.
Rather, it was the most recent installment of an ongoing series of “black flag” protests led by Israel’s political opposition, aimed specifically at destabilizing a nation already weathering health and financial crises. Various protests have focused on protecting democracy, protecting the environment, protecting Israel’s Supreme Court, opposing Israel’s application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, and most prominently, dealing with Netanyahu’s criminal proceedings.
Printed posters at nearly all of the protests accuse Netanyahu of being the “Crime Minister.”
On Tuesday night, just three days after the larger Tel Aviv event, a separate smaller protest outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem—themed around Netanyahu’s criminal proceedings—turned violent. Fifty protesters were arrested.
The prime minister’s residence has been the stage of multiple protests over the past several weeks. One of the protest organizers, former Israeli Air Force Gen. Amir Haskel, who was arrested for disturbing the peace at a protest two weeks ago, recently told The Media Line that “I took to the streets for the first time back in 2016,” over what he called Netanyahu’s “attacks on the democratic foundations of Israel.”
“We have one demand, which is that Netanyahu resign,” said Haskel.
He explained the tactics of recruiting Israelis disenfranchised over other issues and joining with them, stating, “We cooperate with all of these movements, and gladly.”
One of Haskel’s fellow protesters, Sadi Ben Shitrit, who began protesting “about two years ago,” said that “dictatorships are never toppled in the parliament or in the government. They’re toppled in the streets.”
He insisted that “it’s a matter of a few months. He can’t stay. Pretty soon his own base, when they get hungry [because of the pandemic and resulting high unemployment], they’ll come out against him. It’ll be chaos in the streets.”
Yet Ben Shitrit also mimicked some of the most disturbing political discourse of the past several months, stating, “They can only shut me up in one way: with a bullet to the head. If that’s what it takes, I’m willing to pay that price.”
These shocking statements are part of an ongoing theme of hateful and dangerous speech that has gone on for months without censure.
At another protest outside the prime minister’s residence, protester Haim Shadmi was accused of threatening the life of Netanyahu’s son Yair. Protesters blasted a recording outside the residence saying of Netanyahu’s son, “We know why you need bodyguards, one day we will find you when they are away, [that would be] a pity!”
At the time, the prime minister filed a formal complaint with police stating “the incitement among the radical left crossed all red lines. These are real threats to the life of my son, threats that cannot be ignored.”
Lapid responded to Netanyahu’s complaint, tweeting, “Netanyahu is filing all these complaints because this is his method: To threaten, incite, lead to violence and then claim he’s a victim. Always playing the victim and whining.”
Back in May, when Netanyahu’s trials first began, Lapid said: “There was a coup attempt yesterday, and it was led by Netanyahu. He tried to attack the police, the prosecution, the courts, the media. He tried to threaten his judges. The moment he drags his ministers to the court with him, incites his followers, tries to lead us towards a civil war, then he can’t be allowed to remain in office.”
“Israel changed yesterday. It won’t be the same. A serving prime minister was put on trial. His trial didn’t start with a presentation of the evidence, it started with wild incitement against the rule of law, against the courts … ,” said Lapid. “He knows it will end in violence, but he doesn’t care.”
Lapid’s opposition partner, far-left Meretz Party chair Nitzan Horowitz, similarly accused Netanyahu of “incitement” for questioning the legitimacy of the unprecedented legal cases against Israel’s longest-serving premier.
“The inciters, led by Netanyahu, must know that if God forbid blood is spilled here, they’ll be responsible,” stated Horowitz.
This dangerous rhetoric did not start with Netanyahu’s trial. It was a constant theme of his (and then political ally turned foe Benny Gantz) electoral attempt to unseat Netanyahu. After the prime minister warned against the left-wing’s plans to form a minority government with self-proclaimed anti-Zionist Arab parties, Lapid stated: “The words coming out of Netanyahu’s mouth in the past few days are incitement to violence. They are words spoken by followers of Baruch Goldstein, not by a prime minister. It will end badly. He knows it will end badly. He’s been there.”
Goldstein was a Jewish doctor who murdered 29 Arabs and injured 125 others while inside a mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.
Back in November, when Gantz was still running together with Lapid, the prime ministerial challenger spoke at a rally commemorating the 24th anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. The former prime minister was assassinated at the same site as last week’s “financial” protests. At the memorial, he, too, subversively accused Netanyahu of stirring incitement that could lead to bloodshed.
“Twenty-four years, Yitzhak Rabin is no longer with us, but incitement raises its ugly head … and hatred has again become a dangerous weapon in the hands of politicians without limits,” said Gantz.
These dangerous sentiments, which have now become commonplace in Israel’s political dialogue, do not represent in any way the sentiments of everyday Israelis. And with the exception of the financial protest in Tel Aviv, which managed to successfully recruit normal Israelis hurt by the financial damage of coronavirus restrictions, most of the protests are attended primarily by radicals whose political views sit at the far-left fringe of Israel’s diverse political spectrum.
Pictures of the protests do not show proud Israelis hurt by the coronavirus, but anarchists seeking to destabilize Israel in the same way manner that recent racial protests turned violent in the United States.
And while Netanyahu has correctly warned against the dangers of a minority left-wing government backed by Arab parties and questioned the legality of the criminal proceedings against him, he has never called for—or even mentioned—the possibility of violence.
While rolling out his financial stimulus this week, he stated, “I want you to understand: Israel is a free democracy. Freedom of expression and protest are reserved for every person and group, certainly in times of economic distress such as this. But the revolt … this is real danger,” adding that the recent scenes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are “not just a protest, that is legitimate. We saw violence against police and against civilians. This violence deserves all condemnation.”
He warned that Israelis “must not talk about civil rebellion. We cannot fall into gratuitous hatred. We cannot fall into hating our brothers. … We cannot go there. We must behave in exactly the opposite manner. We must deepen the unity between us. We must watch our own. I believe that with joint forces, we will fight the coronavirus and defeat it.”
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.