David Meir thinks of himself as a man of the Israeli right. He moved to the Etzion settlement bloc, in the West Bank south of Jerusalem, for ideological reasons, he said, to take part in the upbuilding of the Land of Israel.
On Saturday night, however, he found himself at a protest calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a leader once widely viewed as a hero of the right wing, alongside activists far to the left of the political spectrum.
“This isn’t normal for me, as a right-winger,” Meir admitted with a chuckle. “But he’s not good for the right.”
Meir was not alone.
Saturday night’s protest against Netanyahu was the largest so far, with organizers claiming as many as 32,000 people packing the square outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, though some media reports put the figure at a more modest 15,000 to 20,000.
As with past protests, the vast majority of attendees were leftists and centrists. Left-wing activists with the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party bore signs condemning the occupation, while activists from the centrist Yesh Atid party held megaphones and danced to the rhythm of anti-Netanyahu slogans.
But among the people dressed as aliens and protesters holding Palestinian flags were at least a smattering of self-identified right-wingers making common cause with their ideological opposites over a common disdain for Netanyahu. Signs read “right-wingers and left-wingers refuse to be enemies,” and “I’m right-wing and I’m against Bibi,” showing the protests’ ability to cut across ideological lines.
While difficult to confirm, there appeared to be more right-wing protesters than at past demonstrations, in what could be the latest sign that Netanyahu may be losing ground with his base.
According to a new survey by the non-partisan Israeli Democracy Institute, around 49% of Likud identify with economic protests against the government.
Even many right-wing voters – around 42% of Yamina voters and for example – rate Netanyahu’s personal conduct unfavorably.
Polls published by two Israeli news channels on Thursday showed support for Likud slipping as both Yamina, a far-right faction led by Netanyahu rival Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid gained ground.
Right-wing voters who spoke The Times of Israel said that they believed that many in their camp were dissatisfied with Netanyahu, who has been in power for a decade.
Cheni Ben Baruch, attending the Balfour protests for the first time, held up a sign proudly identifying himself as a right winger. He said the last time he was at a protest was 2005, to demonstrate against the Gaza disengagement.
“The right has much better alternatives, and in my opinion the ideological right needs to come out [to protest], and the moment that it does, Netanyahu will be truly pressured,” said Ben Baruch, who voted for Yamina in 2019. “I know that there are many people who think like me.”
Meir said that he had been spurred into the streets by the arrest of former brigadier general Amir Haskel, anorganizer who had been detained while he was protesting against Netanyahu in late June, sparking widespread anger and lighting a match under the protests.
“When I heard that Netanyahu had arrested Amir Haskel, an old man sitting on the sidewalk, it lit a fire in me,” Meir said. “After that, there was the law which bypasses the Knesset. This is a democratic country, but it started to feel like we’re on a slippery slope,” he added, referring to legislation that defanged the Knesset’s coronavirus oversight committee.
Selling a left wing story
Right wing demonstrators strongly rejected the notion that the protests were fundamentally left wing, a claim pushed by Netanyahu, who has regularly denounced the protesters as “left-wing anarchists,”
Activists, on the other hand, maintain that their movement is broad-based and representative of widespread anger at Netanyahu for a variety of ills from across Israeli society.
“They are selling them a story that this is left wing. But there’s a real story of corruption and public injustice here. All of the prophets of the Bible were concerned with this,” Meir said.
“I think it is very convenient for Netanyahu that this is a left wing protest because in that way he positions himself as right wing, I am right wing against the bizarre lefty minority that comes to protest against me. I think that is not at all correct, in the ideological right there is a very, very large group that is not with Netanyahu,” said Ben Baruch.
Some right-wing activists are organizing a separate protest in adjacent Independence Park to be held in parallel with the others. An organizer, who declined to be quoted by name, said that many right-wingers opposed Netanyahu but did not want to be associated with the left-wing activists in Paris Square.
“They feel that this protest is too left-wing and debauched,” the organizer said, mentioning an incident in which a woman sat on a Menorah by the Knesset and exposed her chest. “But rather than try and persuade them otherwise, we’ve decided to hold a separate event.”
Rabbi Yossi Froman, a West Bank settler and prominent member of the religious right who is also a peace activist, stood in Paris Square holding a sign that read “we need a courageous leader.”
Froman, who is a regular at the protests and is seen as something of an outlier within the right-wing camp for his efforts toward conciliation with the Palestinians, rejected the idea that the protests were about left or right.
“What happened to [Netanyahu] is what happens in other contexts: he fell in love with the role. He thinks there is no one else for the job. Therefore, everything he does, all the people that he surrounds himself with, all the decisions he makes is only so that he stays there, rather than for the good of the country. It’s destructive, and it’s even more destructive during coronavirus,” Froman said.
The son of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a settler leader known for seeking reconciliation with Palestinians, Froman said he not only had voted for Netanyahu in the past, but believed that he had started as a great leader. Now, though, with the premier standing trial for corruption, it was time for him to leave.
“A person who is in love with his chair cannot make brave decisions,” he said. “It is time for him to hand over his chair to the next person in line. That is the greatness of a leader.”
Header: Thousands protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on August 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)