Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday afternoon to express their support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his arraignment. It was the first hearing of a trial that his champions had hoped would never materialize, and that his enemies had spent the past four years pressing for and salivating over.
The latter also turned out at the courthouse, mainly to gloat. But a greater number preferred to hold their anti-Netanyahu festival—replete with champagne and blessings of l’chaim—in front of his official residence on Balfour Street, a mere mile-and-a-half away.
Finally, after four years of investigations into the activities of their nemesis, they were getting their wish: that the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, whom they’ve been unable to beat at the ballot box, will end his career in disgrace, if not in jail.
But their schadenfreude may be short-lived—whatever fate befalls Netanyahu at the hands of the panel of three judges, hand-picked for the purpose of kicking him when he’s up.
Indeed, in spite of all the media’s mudslinging and targeting by the judicial system, Netanyahu still holds the reins of the executive branch. In fact, after three rounds of Knesset elections, he remains the leader of the largest party and will continue to be at the helm—in accordance with the coalition agreement that he signed with Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz late last month—for the next 18 months. If the government lasts until then, that is, which is something that voters on both sides of the political spectrum highly doubt. Having a mish mosh of conflicting ideologies in a “unity” coalition will do that.
On the other hand, most Israelis dreaded the thought of a fourth election, partly due to woes born of the coronavirus crisis, and—perhaps even more importantly—because nobody believed that another round of voting would yield different results.
Ironically, Netanyahu’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was so popular that polls showed him winning by a landslide in the event of another election.
This only partially explains why people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic levels from around the country came out in droves on Sunday to chant pro-Netanyahu and anti-left-wing slogans, in addition to spewing vitriol at the judicial system.
Protestations on the part of those out to oust Netanyahu to the contrary, the chattering classes in the press, academia and, of course, the courts have been on an endless campaign to delegitimize the right.
It’s nothing new. When the late Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977—thus ending the long-standing Mapai-turned-Labor rule of the “founding fathers” of the state—the outcry on the left was loud and hysterical. That the right dared to “usurp” their throne was too much for them to bear.
Labeling him a terrorist for having commanded the Irgun and comparing him to Italian fascist Benito Mussolini for his crowd-rousing oratory, the Israeli intelligentsia proceeded to go after his supporters. Many of these were Mizrahim—immigrants from North Africa, who felt disenfranchised socially by their snobby Ashkenazi (European) counterparts.
One key ideological difference between them was that the former hailed from and fled Muslim-majority Arab countries, and as a result harbored little faith in the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. The latter looked down on this as a “primitive” worldview.
Though many have attributed this air of superiority as stemming from a fairer complexion, the divide existed more along class lines than racial ones.
Begin, an erudite Ashkenazi, was having none of it. He warmly embraced the support of the Mizrahim, whose positions he respected. The feeling was mutual. For them, he represented a tough leader who refused to kowtow to anti-Semites—a proud Jew who believed in Jewish power and rejected dhimmitude (second-class status) in any form.
Unable to attack Begin for lacking class, culture or education, his political foes dismissed his base as ill-bred sheep. The same dismissive approach is employed today in relation to those who back Netanyahu, whether they are Mizrahim, Ashkenazim or a mixture of both, which most Israelis are by now. Siding with Likud supposedly is tantamount to lacking nuance of thought, being swayed by slogans rather than independently contemplating complex issues and weighing their consequences.
Realizing that this attitude towards the hapless herd was having the opposite of the intended effect, the left changed its course. Pretending not to have contempt for Likud voters, it aimed all its arrows at Netanyahu by creating the “anybody but Bibi” camp.
Vilifying the man and not his followers was a neat trick. It was even quite successful, as Gantz’s meteoric rise illustrates. But it went too far, as the left’s machinations often do.
This brings us back to the demonstrators who descended en masse on the courthouse this week.
True, they were thumbing their noses at the prosecutors, the police and the press for hounding Netanyahu with charges that they deem bogus. As he has pointed out and they agree, the idea that he committed bribery, fraud and breach of trust in order to obtain favorable media coverage is beyond ludicrous, especially in his particular case. And the fact that he received gifts from rich acquaintances is negligible, maybe deserving of a fine, at most.
This, however, doesn’t fully answer the question of why they made such an effort to show up—in uncomfortable surgical masks, no less—and protest. No, the reason that Holocaust survivors and teenagers came together with cab drivers and teachers to wave placards and make their voices heard was not solely to bolster Bibi. It was also an act of defiant self-assertion against the forces of condescension.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”
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