12/4/17 A demonstration That Made a Difference

The summer of 2011 was known in Israel as the “summer of the Protest”. In 2011, a huge social protest movement developed, calling both for lower prices, in specific, and social justice, in general. At the time, a friend commented to me that he hoped the protestors succeeded in achieving something — as he feared if they did not, it would be a long time until people came out and demonstrated again.

In the end, the demonstrators of summer 2011 failed to accomplish anything significant. In attempts to calm the masses, Prime Minister Netanyahu did swiftly create a Commission to look into their demands. Commission members studied the issues and made a group of recommendations — most of which were promptly ignored by the government. And so, sadly, my friend was correct. For the last six years, few have made the effort to come out to come out for any demonstrations. Recently, the best attended demonstration in Tel Aviv was a gathering in celebration of Veganism, in tandem with support for animal rights … that was until this past Saturday night.

This past Saturday night, tens of thousands took to the streets of Tel Aviv. These were not the youth of 2011, but mostly an older demographic the lawyers, the investment bankers, the doctors, architects, small business owners, retirees, and more. They came out to protest the naked attempt of the government to pass laws to protect the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the expected results of the police investigation into his alleged corruption. For the past two weeks, Netanyahu’s representatives in the Knesset have been pursuing the passage of a bill that would make it illegal for the Police to make public recommendations to the Attorney-General at the end of their investigation, as to whether there is a basis for an indictment.

The above-mentioned bill, was crafted explicitly to stop Police from presenting their recommendations regarding their investigations in at least two of the cases where law enforcement is widely expected to recommend that Netanyahu be indicted. Some members of the coalition were opposed to this bill, even members of the Likud objected. Nevertheless, by the end of the last week, the bill had cleared its initial reading in the Knesset — after David Biton and David Amsalem, (the two Likud MKs who were the point-men for Netanyahu in the Knesset) made it clear that if the law was not passed, Netanyahu would break up the coalition and call for new elections. No one knew whether or not Netanyahu was bluffing. However, the coalition members did not want new elections, so they all folded. Still, to the demonstrators who filled streets in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, the very rule of law in the country was in danger. So, they marched and rallied, like they had not done in years.

Remarkably, the demonstration Saturday night changed the prevailing political calculus. Minister of Finance Moshe Kachlon, who had reluctantly gone along with the proposed law, saw crowds in the streets — which included many of his own potential voters — and realized that continuing to support this law might well be political suicide. The fact that polls over the weekend showed overwhelming opposition to the law by the Israeli public also helped change Kachlon’s position.

In addition, it probably did not help the bill’s chances of being passed, when it was announced that David Biton, the Likud’s Knesset whip (and one of the key figures behind these laws), was being interrogated by police, under threat of prosecution for widespread corruption, while serving as deputy mayor in his home town of Rishon L’Tzion. Biton’s initial interrogation lasted 13 hours. Other suspects tied to Biton, who are not members of Knesset, were arrested —including the mayor of the town.

With his majority evaporating, Netanyahu decided he had no choice, but to both delay the vote on the law and state that if it were to pass, it would not cover his case. A new version of the law has been introduced stating that it will not affect any ongoing investigations. At this point, Netanyahu seems to be confident that, politically, he will be able to ride out a police recommendation, should he be indicted. Under the current system, Police enter their recommendation, but the Attorney-General makes the final decision on whether to proceed.

If history is a guide, it could take many months for the A-G to decide whether indeed to indict Netanyahu. In the meantime, Netanyahu hopes he can continue his duties as Prime Minster. Netanyahu’s fear is that if the police recommend indictment and detail his alleged crimes, the street power that has awakened and has succeeded in changing the course of events this weekend, will grow, and as a result, the pressure on his coalition partners to force him to resign will be too great to withstand. This is but one of many possible scenarios. What is clear, is that the Israeli political scene is entering into uncharted territory, where any outcome is possible. For this one moment, however, those who participated in the rally Saturday night have a smile on their faces … for once, political protest seems to have had an impact here in Israel.