It was a strange protest rally, ambivalent in message, ambiguous in the numbers it drew. A thousand people, by the most generous estimates, showed up Saturday night at Zion Square in central Jerusalem, a traditional venue for right-wing demonstrations. It was more than a handful, less than a movement.
The main organizer, a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisted it was a rally “for” — not “against” — clean government, for the rule of law. Never mind that the reason for protesting was the corruption allegations against Netanyahu, his attacks on the police and his attempts to change laws to save himself.
Three members of parliament showed up, all from Kulanu, a center-right party in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition government whose support for the prime minister is particularly wobbly. They avoided speaking to the crowd. Ex-defense minister Moshe Yaalon, once the gruff alter ego of the prime minister, did take the mic to declare, “Corruption is a bigger threat than Iran, Hezbollah or the Islamic State.” By implication, that made Netanyahu a greater threat than the dangers he constantly warns against.
Protests against corruption have been going on for months in Israel. Organized by activists including the former housekeeper of Netanyahu’s official residence, they began outside the home of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who oversees the interminable investigations against Netanyahu. With the crowds and media attention steadily growing, the rallies have moved in recent weeks to central Tel Aviv, where the one last Saturday night was much larger than its right-wing counterpart in Jerusalem. But the organizers of that one wanted to keep their distance from the Tel Aviv protest, which featured slogans including “The Occupation Corrupts.”
And yet, despite the smaller numbers, it’s the demonstration in Jerusalem that scares Netanyahu. Last week his office reportedly pressured members of parliament from his own Likud Party and other right-wing figures not to participate. The prime minister knows that an outbreak of moral qualms in his own camp about his leadership poses the most immediate threat to his rule.
Netanyahu has been questioned by police seven times in the past year in two corruption cases. In one, he’s suspected to have received a steady stream of gifts, including expensive cigars and champagne, from multimillionaires in return for governmental favors. In the other, he allegedly negotiated (but never implemented) a deal to buy favorable coverage from the nation’s No. 2 newspaper in return for reducing the circulation of the No. 1 paper. The chief investigator is retiring, after many postponements, from the police — which means that his team is likely to complete the investigation within a few weeks, at which point it will issue a recommendation to prosecutors on whether there’s enough evidence to indict Netanyahu.
From all those hours he has spent with the detectives, Netanyahu has some idea of what they have. Judging from his actions, he thinks that they think they have the goods on him.
Netanyahu’s cronies in parliament introduced a bill to bar the police from recommending whether or not to indict. But the size of the rally in Tel Aviv made some members of the ruling coalition queasy, especially in Kulanu. Support in parliament began to crumble, and Netanyahu retreated and made a concession by agreeing that the bill wouldn’t apply to current investigations.
Since the scandal broke, Netanyahu’s mantra has been, “There was nothing, so there’ll be nothing.” That is: no crime, no police recommendation, no problem. Last week, however, he added to that message. In an angry speech to Likud activists, he implied that the police have made up their minds against him in advance, and he claimed that most police recommendations never turn into indictments.
Translation: If there’s someone with no regard for the law here, it’s the cops. They’re out to get me.
Netanyahu’s effort to portray himself as a victim will satisfy many of his voters. Others will conclude that the prime minister may well be corrupt but that he is the key to keeping the right in power and its policies in place. Their motto will be “Support the crook. It’s important.”
But it’s Netanyahu’s rhetoric, and his parliamentary gambit, that led directly to the demonstration in Jerusalem. For some on the right, Netanyahu has become a burden too heavy to bear. Somehow, they’re not bothered by the damage done to democracy by permanent rule over the Palestinians of the West Bank. But they do believe in democracy inside Israel and draw a line at a politician rewriting the rules to protect himself. This is better than drawing no line at all.
Besides that, they have a different read on practical politics. They fear that sticking with Netanyahu could shift just enough votes among centrists to cost the right its uneasy hold on power. They’d rather dump him now than be stained by him.
Netanyahu’s behavior suggests that the crisis will arrive soon. The demonstration in Jerusalem is a less certain omen. The fact that only a thousand people showed up may mean that dissent on the right is weak. Alternatively, that a thousand protesters from the prime minister’s own camp were willing to come out on a cold Jerusalem night may signal much wider dissatisfaction on the right — and with it, the approaching end of the Netanyahu era.
Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. His books include The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 and The Unmaking of Israel. He is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Review of Books.