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Could Capitol Hill riots happen in Israel’s Knesset?

People who worked with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argue that what happened in Washington on Capitol Hill could also happen in Jerusalem.
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Members of the National Guard and the Washington D.C. police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capital after thousands of Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Bide

In Israel, too, sights of the US Capitol being invaded appeared unimaginable. Local opponents of President Donald Trump, who constitute a minority among Israelis, celebrated a moral victory while his supporters barricaded themselves behind uncomfortable embarrassment. Above it all hung one key question: Could such a clash be reenacted in Jerusalem? Could the zealous, enthusiastic political base loyal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who swears by him and believes all the conspiracy theories he spreads, feeble though they may be, mount an assault on the institutions of Israeli democracy and attempt a violent coup?

The answer depends on whom you ask. “Don’t be fooled,” a person who worked closely with Netanyahu for many years told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “What happened in Washington could happen in Jerusalem.” According to this source, who has been observing with shock the systematic attempts by Netanyahu and his followers to dismantle Israeli democracy, the events in Washington are “exactly the Netanyahu family’s plan to set the streets and the state on fire if, and when, Netanyahu is forced to leave the prime minister’s residence. This is exactly what they are counting on, and this is their plan for the decisive moment, if and when it comes.”

Many others agree with him. “The original Netanyahu, dignified, level-headed and averse to adventurism, would never have dreamed of inciting the masses of his followers against the Knesset,” a person who knows Netanyahu well and worked with him closely for years told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The problem is that we lost the original Netanyahu a long time ago. He was replaced by a messianic mutation that has a mystic belief in its mission and power and cannot bear the thought of leaving the prime minister’s job, in general, and especially standing criminal trial on charges of bribery.”

The answer to the question of whether a Capitol-type assault is possible in Israel does not rest only with Netanyahu, his wife Sara and son Yair. The other unknown is Netanyahu’s supporters. Is Netanyahu capable of sweeping along a mass of people who will mount a violent charge on the institutions of government? Will the unbelievable sights the world saw unfolding on Jan. 7 as the mob ransacked Congress play out in Jerusalem, too?

This is where it gets complicated. Despite the massive, sweeping support Netanyahu enjoys among almost half the Israeli electorate, the protests held on his behalf in recent months have drawn only a handful of demonstrators. Since the mass anti-Netanyahu movement broke out around the country last summer, his acolytes have been trying to mount counter-demonstrations to confront the determined opponents protesting against his continued rule. At best, these counter-protests have drawn a few dozen participants, nothing like the tens of thousands on the other side.

The number of hard-core Netanyahu loyalists willing to devote time and energy to counter the well-organized “Anyone but Netanyahu” can be counted on one hand or two, at most. Does this mean there will not be a sufficient turnout of people willing to violate the law for the sake of their leader on judgment day, the decisive moment when the masses are convinced that Netanyahu is the victim of some intercontinental cosmic liberal-leftist, post-Zionist plot to kick him out of office?

Right now, no one knows. There is a saying in Israel that Netanyahu’s opponents go out into the streets while his supporters go out to the ballot boxes. Nonetheless, social media is awash in wild conspiracy theories propagated on behalf of the Netanyahu family, according to which the country’s top law enforcement officials (appointed at the time by Netanyahu himself) have conspired to unseat him by framing him for crimes he did not commit. These theories have taken hold in the minds of hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Will Netanyahu and his supporters manage to translate the ideas into action at the right time? We will have to wait in suspense and see.

Despite the major differences between Netanyahu and Trump, given that Netanyahu is a veteran politician, erudite, sophisticated, responsible and level-headed, there are pronounced similarities between adherents of the soon-to-be one-term former president and those of the veteran Israeli prime minister. Both are fueled by insane conspiracy theories that hard-core supporters have adopted as dogma. Both have engaged in persistent incitement against authorities and law enforcement agencies, and both have taken to the streets and swum in the rivers of sewage flowing through social media with barely suppressed violence.

Netanyahu had terrorized his Likud party’s lawmakers with the same type of thinking with which Trump had manipulated members of his Republican Party. These, anxious to avoid messing with the president’s furious base, preferred to fall in line with his capricious behavior throughout his first and last term. In Netanyahu’s case, too, quite a few Likud Knesset members and ministers who express shock and dismay in private about the developments of recent months do not dare tweet their thoughts to avoid becoming a target of the incitement and slander channeled out of the residence on Balfour Street and flooding cyberspace.

In Trump’s case, it seems to be over. Democracy has triumphed. Despite the unbelievable attempts by his supporters to occupy the Capitol and desecrate the symbols of American democracy, Washington ultimately purged the foreign bodies that invaded its immune system. The situation in Israel is more complex. Its democracy is more fragile; its foundations are far less stable. The moment of truth is still ahead, possibly as near as the upcoming elections on March 23. Will Netanyahu revert, at the last minute, to the type of leader he was in the past, placing the well-being of Israeli democracy above his own? Or will he lose it completely and charge full force against those he has marked as the plotters determined to depose him? Most people who know him are not so hopeful.

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