Netanyahu Unsettles Democracy in Israel Following Hot Decision to Ban Mass Protests

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Netanyahu's time in power threatened by corruption trial
  • + Anti-Netanyahu protests have swept across Israel in light of his corruption charges, 
  • + A hot Netanyahu has responded by banning mass demonstrations.
  • + Netanyahu has managed to get his own way in his response to the pandemic and is still maintaining lead over his rivals in the polls.

Why is Netanyahu’s heat level hot?

Answer: Despite public outrage in light of his corruption charges, Netanyahu has managed to maintain a hot leadership.

2020 saw the trial of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption charges begin, and is set to conclude just a month before the March legislative election this year. On counts of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, Netanyahu has been accused of making a secret deal with one of Israel’s main newspapers to give favours in exchange of positive press coverage. Netanyahu has denied all allegations, denouncing a media-led witch hunt, and is likely to be protected by his coalition deal, which will mean he will not have to resign as prime minister if found guilty. 

In wake of the accusations, continuous mass protests have arisen in rage at Netanyahu’s corruption charges and feeble handling of the pandemic. An estimated 20,000 people took part in demonstrations as of September 2020, just weeks before Netanyahu, as part of his lockdown powers, banned mass gatherings of over 20 people, essentially criminalising the protests against him in order to uphold his powerful image and mask his corruption charges.

Israel currently has the highest COVID infection rate per capita in the world. Netanyahu has met the crisis with a hands-on approach to dispensing the vaccine, making Israel the highest driver of the vaccines in the world, administering more than 150,000 doses a day. Netanyahu’s boastfulness about his personal push for the vaccine has left Israelis hopeful for an end to the pandemic. However, Netanyahu’s vaccination plans appear less benign. With no Palestinians residing in Israeli territory granted a dose, he has managed to push his own political agenda upon the vaccination programme in order to steer attention away from his trial and ultimately, the election in his favour.

What is changing Netanyahu’s temperature?

Answer: Despite international backlash, the leader has been able to employ his own take on policy, while staying afloat in the polls.

Naturally, Netanyahu responded to protests against him with a law banning them. Though justified as just another tactic to minimise the spread of COVID-19, the leader has a history of wanting to ban mass protests, even before the pandemic outbreak. Netanyahu thus, is seen using the law as a tool to suppress the mass protests, rather than one solely to handle the pandemic. 

With an impressive 82% of Israelis having been vaccinated as of January 27th, it is worth noting that Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza regions have not been included. Netanyahu has thus been met with accusations of dodging moral, humanitarian and legal obligations from both international rights groups and Palestinian PM, Mohammad Shtayyeh. However, Israel’s Health Minister has publically supported Netanyahu’s decision, denying Israel’s responsibility to vaccinate Palestinians. It seems, at least for the time being, that the demands from international organisations will have little bearing on Netanyahu’s governance. 

Despite his international image being marred by his exclusionary implementation of the vaccine, Netanyahu employed strong leadership in pushing through a world-leading vaccination programme, which could benefit him domestically, particularly in being re-elected in March. However, Netanyahu must pay particularly close attention to the Ultra-Orthodox electorate, which is typically a guaranteed vote for the leader but has recently felt disenfranchised by lockdown restrictions. 

Despite Netanyahu’s corruption charges and opposition arising in the form of public demonstrations, he continues to lead in the polls for the upcoming legislative election in March, with a likely loss of just 5 seats, where his re-election campaign could have easily taken a blow. However, with just a month until the election, it calls into question whether Netanyahu’s temperature can remain hot vis a vis his main opponent, Benny Gantz

What is driving Netanyahu?

Answer: Ideology and personal political gain: Netanyahu already has a history of employing nationalistic, anti-media sentiment.

Netanyahu has exacerbated the Likud party’s nationalistic, exclusionary policies for the past 11 years as prime minister of Israel. Indeed, ahead of the March election, he is stirring up his infamous nationalistic sentiment driven by ideology and religion in his administration of the vaccine in order to appeal to the far-right Zionist vote. This will likely keep him safe in the Knesset this election around, however the electoral lean towards Benny Gantz centrism, Netanyahu’s main challenger, and discontent bubbling amongst the Ultra-Orthodox vote may suggest a grisly future of compromises for Netanyahu. 

Though the polls indicate that his share of the vote will not be enough to govern alone, it will allow him to form a coalition with extreme-right parties in the Knesset in order to further push his agenda. 

As an opportunist leader, Netanyahu has not only used the vaccine to employ nationalist policy to appeal to Israelis, but he has also exploited his lockdown powers to ban mass protests in wake of any public opposition.
In reaction to the corruption charges, he has instilled populist rhetoric in order to maintain support and divert attention away from his criminal activity by implying it is merely a media-led witch hunt against him. It is clear thus, although fuelled by his own ideology, he is ultimately driven to maintain electoral support, using his vaccination campaign in an attempt to steer attention away from his criminal trial.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Netanyahu will portray Israel’s vaccination campaign as a global model, however the Palestinian question is set to continue international tensions

We would expect a slightly frostier relationship between Israel and the US under the Biden administration, one that reflects Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama. Further implications could evolve in regard to both countries’ response to matters in the Middle East.

Similarly, should Netanyahu continue to act hot in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, there could be further hostility between the EU and Israel

The success of Netanyahu’s vaccination programme could set precedent across the globe to increase the pace in administering the vaccine in order to compete as leading responses to the pandemic. However, international organisations may intervene further to ensure inclusivity with the Palestinians which could dismantle Netanyahu’s unrivalled power.

Elle Osborn

R&A Alumna