Three friends set off to sea. Boris, Donald and Bibi represent different countries, but are united in conservative, aggressive and xenophobic rhetoric. They mostly brag about their amazing talent for communicating with the “people”. They have found that when they incite against the “elites,” they gain immense sympathy, and the more they encourage hatred towards strangers, the more their popularity rises. They succeeded in dismantling opposition, cracking the genetic code of the “people”, leaving their opponents helpless, and their future seemed assured. They made alliances with the ultra-Orthodox religious people from here and the evangelicals from there, those who were willing to forgive them anything in exchange for fat budgets and laws designed to impose religion and conservatism on secular society. With a guaranteed electoral base they looked invincible, until the novel coronavirus caught them unprepared.
Today these three friends are fighting for their positions. The Brit was in danger of death after contracting the virus. The American refused to acknowledge the severity of the disease “so as not to create panic” and created chaos. He himself then caught it. The Israeli actually understood the severity of the situation, but he is under a heavy indictment, his judgment went awry, and he lost control of the pandemic. All three left the “people,” on whose behalf they speak, in a difficult struggle for survival. Bibi is right when he claims in his defense that the second COVID-19 wave is hitting other countries too, not just Israel, but this is imprecise. The blow to Israel is extremely severe, and he is having a hard time dealing with it because he has lost public confidence. Bibi is the only leader in the Western world to face the pandemic while under indictment of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. He is waging two wars at once – one against the prosecution, and the other against the disease.
This is where the lines begin to blur. Which comes first, public health or prime minister health? So far Bibi has been an almighty God. Like Louis XIV, he felt that ‘L’état c’est moi.’ If Bibi is the state, how can the state judge him? Yet the difference between Louis XIV and Bibi is essential, because Louis inherited his throne, while Bibi owes thanks to a million and a half voters. This is the difference between a feudal regime and a democratic regime: the people decide, and the people have decided that Bibi is the state, despite the suspicions against him and perhaps precisely because of them. And so Bibi conducts himself at times as king, and at other times as the prime minister; the king fights the justice system and the prime minister fights the pandemic.
For a brief moment, in late May, the day Bibi announced his victory over COVID-19 and urged the people of Israel to go out and have a beer, the king and the prime minister seemed united. From that moment on, he embarked on a media campaign aimed at dismantling the partnership with Blue and White and paving the way to a fourth round of elections. Enchanted by poll results, which predicted that his party alone would get 40 seats, Bibi thought he would be able to add another 21 to form a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox government and thwart his impending trial. The excuse for dismantling the government was and remains the budget, because without a budget there is no government. Under the agreement with Blue and White, a 2020-2021 biennial budget was planned, and Bibi was looking for a way to blow up the agreement by demanding an annual budget instead, even though 2020 is already nearing its end. However, it turned out that the initial flattering polls did not reflect the public mood. “The people” said to him, Bibi we love you, but the lockdown left us sick, unemployed and bruised, we don’t want another round of elections, leave us be.
Meanwhile, the “Balfour protest demonstrations” at the prime minister’s residence swelled. Several retired generals and respected figures, salt of the earth, sat for many days in front of Bibi’s house on Balfour Street, demanding that he resign because of the indictments against him. They sat and nothing came of it, because the “people” did not want to hear them. By the time of the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of self-employed and young workers had lost their livelihoods, their world had been destroyed, and when they looked around for the person responsible, they found none other than Bibi. Balfour thus became the focus of many protests, a huge display of colors and opinions, all united behind the demand of retired generals that Bibi vacate his seat. On the back of the demonstrations rides a broad front of politicians of all kinds, including Lapid, Lieberman, Ya’alon and even Ayman Odeh. The demonstrations have become “political” and personal: because Bibi is the source of all troubles, Bibi must go. And who will replace him? Maybe someone else from the Likud, maybe Naftali Bennett, maybe Yair Lapid, and maybe a coalition that unites them. Bibi must go, but the reality that created Bibi can remain.
True, Bibi is afraid of the demonstrations in Balfour, they remind everyone that he is to blame for the situation, and they aim to prevent him from evading his trial. But the truth is that COVID-19 scares him more. 15,000 protesters cannot change the political reality, while the coronavirus seems capable of overthrowing the other populist leaders, first and foremost Donald Trump. When the pandemic transmutes into a health and economic disaster, Bibi cannot be saved, and this he understands well. Thousands of dead and overflowing hospital wards are spectacles he cannot afford. A million unemployed and tens of thousands of bankrupt businesses are a sure recipe for protests that Balfour Street will be unable to contain. The lockdown and regulations restricting the right to demonstrate stem from panic. Although the “people” deride the justice system and the accusations against Bibi, they will not be able to forgive the leader who acted out of ulterior motives, put his personal good above everything, and left the “people” to their fate.
As the coronavirus spreads, Bibi’s chances of escaping his trial diminish, and he understands this well. In contrast, what his opponents find difficult to understand is that Bibi is not the problem, he is the symptom. While COVID-19 revealed the character of a leader who has lost his judgment, it also exposed the sickness of Israeli society as a whole. Tribalism, internal divisions, ultra-Orthodox versus secular, Mizrachis versus Ashkenazis, and Jews versus Arabs, represent weaknesses that are obvious to all. The Israeli economy, which knows how to nurture the rich and 300,000 high-tech workers, has left hundreds of thousands without an economic future. The health care system is starving and raising red flags, the education system is unprepared to deal with the virus and leaves hundreds of thousands of students behind. Israeli society needs to undergo root and branch reform, but Lapid, Bennett, Lieberman and Gantz are devoid of any alternative vision.
The Israeli flags flown at the Balfour demonstrations are perhaps the ultimate proof that the demonstrators have no vision. They come to demonstrate in the name of democracy, but the Israeli flag is also the flag of Bibi, Bennett and extreme right-winger Itamar Ben Gvir. It is the banner of democracy in the most problematic sense, democracy for the Jews, and occupation and discrimination for the Arabs. Anyone who wants to prove that he is no less a patriot than Bibi, who praises him for peace with the Emirates and Bahrain and accepts his perception of “peace in exchange for peace” (not territory) also sanctifies the Occupation and the denial of Palestinian rights. The Israeli flag is not a flag of democracy because democracy has no flag. Democracy is a principle which transcends nationality, race, and gender. Those who demand freedom for themselves while denying it to others have no idea of democracy.