(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For the past few weeks, Israel has been experiencing raucous street demonstrations against Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. The rallies have no organized leadership, but the protesters share a goal: Fed up with the prime minister’s scandals and mismanagement of the coronavirus, they want to bring down his coalition and get him out of office. Netanyahu may be in serious political trouble.
His response to the unrest has been to incite his admirers against the protesters, the courts, the media, the parliamentary opposition and anyone else who stands in his way. On Sunday, at the weekly government meeting, he labelled the demonstrators “anarchists” whose gatherings “trample on democracy” and spread the dreaded coronavirus. He also accused the media of collaborating with the extremist left to bring down a legally elected prime minister.
Usually such incitement goes unchallenged in the Netanyahu government. But this time, Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benjamin “Benny” Gantz, begged to differ. Public demonstrations, he said, are not only legitimate, they are the lifeblood of democracy.
Gantz, a former army chief of staff and leader of the second-largest faction in Bibi’s government, has been hesitant to rock the boat since joining the coalition government in May. His boldness is a sign that the prime minister may be losing his mojo.
The Covid crisis has been a clarifying moment. After so many years in office, many citizens — even those who don’t like Bibi personally — have come to regard the prime minister as Israel’s indispensable man. Indeed, his tenure has been a time of prosperity and relative peace. Israelis routinely report high levels of happiness and satisfaction on international surveys, and they’ve rewarded him at the polls.
But Netanyahu has failed to rise to the challenge of the coronavirus. Distracted by his trial — for criminal charges relating to bribery, fraud and corruption — he has been oddly detached and indecisive. Israel has one of the highest rates of infection in the world, but only now, after months of bureaucratic infighting, is there the glimmer of a pandemic policy. Economic aid has been too little and too late to save many small businesses and provide the working class (Netanyahu’s base) with a safety net.
A less egocentric prime minister might see this as an opportunity to cut a plea deal that would keep him out of jail, retire from electoral politics and spend the rest of his days defending himself in a memoir, raking in six-figure lecture fees and exploiting his many international connections for influence and profit.
However, that is not Bibi’s style. He will fight, using the weapons of incitement and intimidation that have characterized his political career from the beginning. But he might not win this time.
In 1995, as a rising politician of the Likud party, Netanyahu was part of the campaign to demonize Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as an enemy of the state. Rabin was not long after assassinated by a right-wing fanatic and, within a year, Bibi took his place at the head of the government. It was a demonstration of where political incitement can lead.
Since then, Netanyahu has owned the streets. He has made common political cause with the openly racist Jewish Power Party and the far-right activists of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer fan club known as “La Familia.” At the first large demonstration in Jerusalem last week, members of La Familia beat protestors bloody. The same thing happened in Tel Aviv. Anti-Bibi combat veterans have since begun organizing security patrols to protect the demonstrators.
Cyber-intimidation is also part of Bibi’s campaign. Judges and officers of the court involved in his ongoing trial have received anonymous but convincing death threats via Twitter. (In an effort at moral equivalence, Netanyahu claims to have received similar threats.) The chief prosecutor in his case is now under 24-hour guard, as is the attorney general.
Bibi says he has nothing to do with this, but one of the chief inciters is his troubled son, Yair, who still lives with his mother and father. He recently published the names and addresses of enemy protestors and invited Likudniks to pay them visits. A court ordered Yair to take down the post.
Israeli democracy is now in the midst of its stress test. The legal system is holding up under the pressure. So are the media, despite Bibi’s efforts to portray reporters and critics as enemies of the state. Inspired by the courage of the protestors, some center-left members of Bibi’s coalition are also now standing up to the boss. Netanyahu still has his fans, but far fewer seem willing to defend his personal ambitions.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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