“We won’t leave until Bibi leaves.” Israel’s struggle to contain the coronavirus has stirred deep-seated resentment towards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and protests demanding his resignation are growing by the week.
As the Shabbat rest-day was ending on Saturday evening, thousands of demonstrators headed towards Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, a main site for protests that have taken place in multiple cities.
Some demonstrators branded Netanyahu — who has been indicted with bribery, fraud and breach of trust — as corrupt, while others condemned a lack of coherence in the government’s response to the pandemic.
For Tamir Gay-Tsabary, who travels each day to the Jerusalem protests with his wife Tami from southern Israel, coronavirus was “a trigger” that brought renewed focus to Netanyahu’s leadership faults.
The pandemic made people “understand that he doesn’t care (about) Israel, he just cares for himself,” the 56-year-old sales manager told AFP.
Netanyahu won praise for his initial response to the virus.
His government’s quick decisions in March to curb travel and impose a lockdown brought the daily case-count to a trickle by early May.
But an economic re-opening that began in late April has led to an explosion in transmission in the country of about 9 million people, with daily COVID-19 tallies ranging between 1,000 and 2,000 cases in recent weeks.
Anti-government protests that initially included a few hundred people in Tel Aviv, now regularly count several thousand there and in Jerusalem.
Reflecting on the movement, Einav Schiff of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said it began in response to “a premature victory celebration for having defeated the coronavirus”.
That false victory “morphed into a healthcare and economic failure, which has left a severe crisis of confidence between the public and the government in its wake,” he said.
– No ‘plan’ –
In response to rising cases, Netanyahu’s center-right coalition has re-imposed economically painful restrictions, including targeting shops and markets.
It has also approved additional relief measures, notably cash deposits to all citizens.
Protester Amit Finkerstin said the government’s recent moves reveal it does not “have any plan,” making it impossible for people to prepare for the future.
The 27-year-old waitress, currently unemployed because of the pandemic, pointed to restaurant closures as evidence of the policy chaos.
On July 17, the government announced restaurants would mainly be limited to delivery and takeaway.
Four days later, parliament overturned that decision. Then the government passed a law allowing it to bypass parliament on coronavirus restrictions, casting further uncertainty over the sector.
“One day yes one day no,” Finkerstin said. “People can’t earn any money.”
The government’s plan to send at least 750 shekels ($220) to every citizen has been criticized by some economists as a knee-jerk response to mounting economic suffering in place of smart, targeted aid.
Finkerstin accused the government of giving everyone cash “just to shut our mouth up.”
– ‘Something is happening’ –
Netanyahu has taken responsibility for re-opening the economy too soon, but said he was seeking a tricky balance between protecting livelihoods and limiting viral transmission, a challenge faced by many leaders.
He has also acknowledged the financial pain felt by many in a country where unemployment currently exceeds 20 percent, compared to 3.4 percent in February, when Israel recorded its first COVID-19 case.
But, in a series of tweets, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has also sought to undermine the protests as a product of the “anarchist left” and accused the media of exaggerating their size.
In a July 19 tweet that dismissed the protests as an “embarrassment and a disgrace,” Netanyahu highlighted the presence of a Palestinian flag at one rally, saying “the secret is out,” about the movement.
Despite those dismissals, Schiff insisted that “something is happening” in the protest movement known as “black flag”.
“We can all hear, see and mainly feel it,” he wrote on Sunday.
“It isn’t clear yet whether this is a full-fledged earthquake or whether it is merely a tremor that will ultimately pass, but it’s everywhere.”
Israel’s last major protest movement — 2011 demonstrations over rising cost of living — fizzled without large-scale impact.