On Dec. 6, President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced plans to move the U.S. Embassy there. One might have expected Israelis to be extremely happy. However, aside from official responses from the country’s leaders, Israel was largely silent about the Jerusalem decision.
Instead, Israelis took to the streets in December to demonstrate against the corruption they impute to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the broader political system.
In the short term, it seems the Jerusalem decision helped Netanyahu save face. Press coverage, from Haaretz on the left to Maariv on the right, showed how quickly the media recognized how well timed the declaration was for Netanyahu’s political fortunes.
Opinion polls show that after a long decline over the past year, public support for Netanyahu’s Likud party bumped up between Dec. 1 and Jan. 1, reaching the levels of the 2015 elections. This effectively enabled Netanyahu to secure his coalition government from the threats of early elections — which were beginning to come in November from junior coalition partners.
Corruption allegations challenge the government
However, currently the greatest political threat Netanyahu faces comes not from the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body but, rather, from a rising grass-roots political movement. The prime minister now faces three separate investigations of corruption and conflict of interest. With more charges likely to come soon, the allegations against him include failure to declare gifts from benefactors in the business community and interference in the bidding process for the Israeli Defense Forces’ purchase of German submarines.
Netanyahu’s family also has come under intense scrutiny. His wife, Sara, has been accused of misusing public funds, and the scandals enveloping his son, Yair, are almost constant. While these scandals do not involve Netanyahu himself, they are perceived by many as a symbol of the corruption and lack of morals both in his family and in the government under his leadership.
Israelis have been protesting for the past year
The protests against the corruption associated with Netanyahu and his government began in November 2016 as small weekly demonstrations. Marching in Petach Tikva in front of the home of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the activists, led by Meni Naftali and Eldad Yaniv, demanded that Mandelblit open a criminal investigation against Netanyahu. By May 2017, the crowds came to number in the hundreds each week.
Toward the end of 2017, Likud and Netanyahu moved to push through a Police Recommendations Law, which was intended to prevent the police from making public their findings and recommendations from ongoing/active investigations of general public interest. Activists portrayed the law as a craven attempt to exonerate Netanyahu and an assault on the rule of law. The grass-roots protests grew in size and relocated to Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural center.
On Dec. 2, the “march of shame” drew nearly 20,000 protesters, demanding that the Knesset not pass the Recommendations Law, and that Netanyahu be put to trial.
A week later, tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets of Tel Aviv to again protest the perceived rise of corruption in Israeli politics. Aside from chanting “We are fed up with the corrupt” and “Corrupt, go home!” the protesters were fairly calm and ordered. But the politics were clear. Leading figures in the Israeli left, including the head of the Zionist Union party, Avi Gabbay, and the head of Meretz, Zehava Gal-On, participated in these protests, which were billed as nonpartisan in character.
On Dec. 23, the movement took an important turn. Yoaz Hendel, a right-wing historian and chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, began a similar protest in Jerusalem, in parallel with the larger one in Tel Aviv. Chanting “We deserve clean politics” and “Be modest,” these protesters were joined by a former Likud defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, who has warned that “corruption is more dangerous than Iran.” He was joined by several Kulanu party members of parliament in Likud’s governing coalition. This right-wing protest in Jerusalem suggests a deeply rooted conviction of the need to clean up Israeli politics but also augurs the future fragmentation of the Israeli right.
My research on Israeli social and religious movements seeking to impact government policies suggests that movements that had a clear leadership and that were organized hierarchically were more successful in pushing forward their agenda and had a higher likelihood in affecting government decisions and resource allocation.
Also critical to their success was their ability to reach across the political aisle and create alliances with organizations or movements that differed in their political or religious views. Two examples of such successful movements were the Four Mothers movement, which was an Israeli protest movement founded in 1997 by four women with the goal of bringing about an Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon; and Shas, a Sephardi religious movement founded in 1984 under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Will right and left converge on this issue?
Further parallel protests are planned for every Saturday, both in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in addition to smaller cities in Israel. After 61 weeks of demonstrations, tensions have started to rise between the protests’ main leaders, Meni Naftali and Eldad Yaniv. The success of the anti-corruption movement rests upon its ability to remain united and draw energy from across the political spectrum. An alliance of the left and the oppositional right could possess sufficient strength to launch a serious attack on political corruption.
Currently there are early contacts between the center parties and the right-wing politicians who are disappointed from what they view as a Likud party that has become corrupt. A split of an entire branch of right-wing politicians and a move to the center could create a similar phenomenon to that of the formation of the Kadima party, which caused Likud to lose power between the years 2006-2009.
The investigations into Netanyahu’s alleged misconduct are likely to heat up, as Mandelblit declared on Jan. 31 that they were in their final stages. The publication of the results of these investigations might prompt further political attacks on the democratic rule of law in Israel. Only with persistence can the movement achieve its aim of unseating Netanyahu and cleaning up Israeli politics.