Israel has not seen anything like it for decades — thousands of protesters massing across the street from the prime minister’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, trying to breach the heavily fortified compound, and hundreds of police, some mounted, pushing them back. The protesters refusing to give up, standing firm as water canon sprays tried to disperse them. The confrontation lasted for hours, and culminated in the arrest of 50 protesters. Organizers branded the event “Bastille Night,” symbolic in both timing and substance. Not only did it take place on July 14, the date marking the French Revolution, it targeted the continued rule of indicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who for many of the demonstrators is a modern-day incarnation of despot Louis XVI, with his wife Sara cast in the role of “Let them eat cake” Marie Antoinette.
“Bastille Night” did not topple the Netanyahu regime, but Israel’s Bastille shuddered and the aftershocks of the ongoing protest are having a profound effect on Netanyahu and his ability to govern. The day after the protest that deteriorated into a violent expression of public fury at the Netanyahu family and its seemingly profligate lifestyle, the prime minister announced a surprise “gift” of 6 billion Israeli shekels ($1.75 billion) for the citizenry. Each Israeli adult will get 750 shekels ($217) and 500 shekels ($145) for each child, up to a cap of 3,000 shekels ($870) per family.
The move is a repudiation of Netanyahu’s old-new economic credo and of all the principles he holds dear as a conservative capitalist believer in market forces and minimal government intervention. His motivation is clear: He is fighting for his political survival and, as a derivative, for his personal freedom as he faces trial on charges of corruption. His planned escape from the long arm of the law had just crashed at full speed into a brick wall — the relentless coronavirus health and economic crisis. His approval ratings are plummeting and starting to affect his Likud party’s performance in the polls, closing his window of opportunity to dismantle the disastrous unity government with the rival Blue and White party, engineer new elections and install a streamlined, homogenous government that would allow him to crush the state’s judicial and law enforcement institutions. The heavy shadow of the coronavirus crisis has now overtaken his grand plan and his neo-con values, turning Netanyahu into a Middle Eastern caricature of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. There is no telling whether this might save him.
The generous bounty he offered, which has drawn deadly fire from top Finance Ministry officials and leading economists, has only one goal, to curtail and tone down the next protests planned for this coming Saturday, July 18. Overnight, Netanyahu has forgotten everything he had preached for ages and decided simply to fling money at the masses. The move testifies to a loss of control, perhaps even the beginning of panic. It was not preceded by any deliberations, analyses or professional input. Netanyahu himself convened a prime-time news conference, using his best rhetorical and persuasive skills to try to explain that this was not a populist measure to appease the public. He painted the goody bags as a measured economic recovery move to boost consumption and revitalize trade. Did he convince anyone, even himself? Hard to believe.
Netanyahu’s entanglement is increasing. He is still determined to force his rival-partner, Blue and White party leader and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, to approve a one-year budget for what is left of 2020, rather than a two-year budget for 2020 and 2021, to which they had agreed as part of their coalition deal. Netanyahu has gone back on this commitment, claiming that the coronavirus crisis does not allow for long-term fiscal or economic planning through 2021. Under the Netanyahu-Gantz agreement, if either one of them brings about the dismantling of the government prior to their scheduled job switch in November 2021, the other automatically becomes prime minister of a transition government until elections are held. This is the hold that Gantz has over Netanyahu in order to prevent him from reneging on their job-switch agreement. However, this arrangement also has a fatal flaw. If the budget fails to pass by its legal deadline at the end of August, the Knesset is dispersed but the incumbent prime minister keeps his seat and does not hand over to the so-called “alternate prime minister.”
Gantz, the alternate, knows this is the real reason Netanyahu is striving for a one-year budget. The rationale is political, not economic. If the Knesset adopts a one-year budget in the next few weeks, Netanyahu will retain the option to exit the rotation once the 2021 budget comes up for a vote next year. Passage of a two-year budget at this time, would close off Netanyahu’s “escape route” next year. That explains why Netanyahu is so determined to pass a budget only for what remains of 2020 and why Gantz is adamantly resisting. The impasse is placing the two government leaders on a deadly collision course.
Just recently, it was clear the looming crash would crush Gantz. His poll numbers were at a record low and he seemed to have run out of ammunition. However, in recent weeks, it is becoming increasingly evident that Netanyahu is also holding a dummy gun. The weaker he grows, the smaller the chances of his opting for elections. Gantz would not be the only victim of such a premature move; Netanyahu’s electoral prospects could also be under threat. While there does not appear to be a credible alternative to Netanyahu for now, in politics one never knows. To quote an old air force adage, “The one who will bring you down is the one you do not see.” The Gordian knot tying Netanyahu and Gantz appears binding, for now.
The next two weeks will determine which way this dizzying Israeli chaos is heading. The resurgent coronavirus infections prompted the government in the pre-dawn hours of July 17 to impose new restrictions on the public, including a ban on congregation by more than 10 people and closure of restaurants, pools and fitness centers, and to threaten with a total lockdown. The economy is already tanking and will suffer a further blow. If the waves of protests escalate, Netanyahu’s dizziness will turn into full-blown vertigo. The great Houdini of Israel politics has already extricated himself from complex situations that appeared to be a lost case, but this time he appears to be facing a real perfect storm. For the first time ever, the protest has touched his political base. The unemployment, business closures and loss of livelihoods are taking their toll. His voters may even be harder hit than others are. This time, he does not have rabbits to pull out of his hat nor a magic wand in storage. The 6 billion shekels he promised to hand out to the masses will quickly evaporate in the heavy humid heat. If Netanyahu wants to survive, he will have to think of something much bigger.