Tens of thousands protest Israel’s ‘Crime Minister’: Will it matter?

Nobody expected Saturday’s demonstration to be so enormous, but everyone was angry. Creative expressions of frustration were everywhere and demonstrators vowed to continue the protests — but what impact will they have? 

What started as a ripple on Israeli social media networks over the weekend burst out into a full-blown, massive demonstration against the government on Saturday night, in the heart of Tel Aviv, under the title of “the walk of shame.” Israeli news outlets estimated that tens of thousands turned out spontaneously to vent their anger against government corruption.

Police closed off sections of Rothschild Boulevard and surrounding streets for part of the evening as crowds packed into the area around Independence Museum, where statehood was declared in 1948. People streamed in from Tel Aviv and other parts of the country. After speeches on topics ranging from equality for Ethiopian Israelis to police violence, to the ongoing occupation, and the connection between corruption and the erosion of democracy, demonstrators marched in a thick procession to Habima Square. Their chants focused almost exclusively on corruption, calling for Netanyahu to either “go home” or “go to Ma’asiyahu” — a prison where politicians have served sentences. They hoisted signs reading “Crime Minister,” and “Hatikva – 1,000, 2,000, 3,000,” a pun on the name of the country’s national anthem, “The Hope,” and the “hope” that the police investigations into Netanyahu’s alleged corruption will bring him down.

The trigger for the demonstration was the “Recommendations Law,” a bill designed to prevent the police from providing summaries of its investigations or recommendations about indictment to the Attorney General. It would also ban the publication or leaking of police findings. The wording of the bill is tailored carefully to apply to the investigations against Netanyahu.  Despite widespread criticism, the bill passed a first reading in the Knesset on Monday, with an amendment that would allow the Attorney General to consult with the police on Netanyahu’s cases, but would still criminalize “unlawful” publication of police findings — with a jail sentence. The sponsors are fast tracking the bill; it is expected to face a second and third vote next week and could, if passed, go into effect almost immediately.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest government corruption in Tel Aviv's Rothschild Blvd, December 2, 2017. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Tens of thousands of Israelis protest government corruption in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Blvd, December 2, 2017. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

On Saturday night the anger was palpable. “They crossed a red line,” said Miriam Ziskind, a woman in her 70s who had come with friends from Beersheva. She was accompanied by Simcha Latman, an obstetrics nurse, and two others. “It took us three hours to get here and it will take us three hours to get back,” she said proudly. She is among a group of over 1,000 demonstrators who have been protesting for 54 weeks in Petach Tikva at the home of the attorney general, demanding deeper investigation into government corruption, specifically of Netanyahu, and calling for indictments. The Petach Tikva demonstrators decided to join forces on Saturday night with the Tel Aviv demonstration.

Many expressed surprise at the size of the sprawling crowd. Some had never been to a demonstration at all. Gil Shohat, a celebrity composer, pianist and conductor, said that he never demonstrates, but the name of this protest struck him as exactly right. “We’ve lost our most important gatekeeper, and that’s shame — our internal shame,” he said. Shohat did not come for a left or right-wing agenda, he said, but for “values, rule of law and democracy.” And, he said, “because I’m angry.”

With him was a violinist and author, Eyal Kless, no less outraged. “We’ve been hijacked by a mafia — not right or left. We need to wake up. As individuals none of us would let ourselves be cheated like this, but as a collective for some reason we let them.”

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Particularly bitter sentiment was unleashed against coalition partner Moshe Kahlon, who supported a softer version of the Recommendations Law this week. “I have no expectations of Bibi – less than zero,” said Kless. “But the coalition partners – they need to stand up too, or they’re collaborators.” Others wielded signs showing Kahlon as a puppet.

However, beyond an outpouring of frustration, it was not clear that the demonstration would achieve any specific goal. Miriam Ziskind expressed hope that the vote on the Recommendations Law would be cancelled — a clear enough demand, but not one that would guarantee real steps against corruption at the top.

The leaders of the “Petach Tikva” protests are clearly digging in. They announced that they will hold their demonstration next week in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square — apparently hoping the crowds would grow rapidly, as they did during the social justice protests in the summer of 2011. But it should be remembered that those protests eventually petered out of their own accord without having achieved anything tangible.

Still, the events this week seem to have touched a nerve. The protest on Saturday night took place with little actual organization beforehand. Hand-scrawled signs far outnumbered printed ones. Instead of large banners and T-shirts with slogans, creativity was in force. One sign said “The Netanyahu Law —black flag,” with a scrap of black cloth fluttering above it. In addition to highlighting that the law was designed specifically to protect the prime minister, the sign recalls a famous ruling that soldiers must disobey “an illegal order, which has a black flag flying above it.”