anti-Netanyahu Protests Are Heating Up;
black flag protests: ‘You shall not return’
The possibility that Netanyahu will return to power has brought the black flag protests back to Israel’s bridges and intersections, this time under a new banner: ‘You shall not return‘
From the time opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu formed his last government in May 2020 and until its collapse, every Saturday evening, tens of thousands of Israelis would gather at bridges across the country to protest the fact that a man on trial for corruption was serving in the nation’s highest office. They waved both Israeli flags and black flags at passing traffic and held banners that featured a one-word demand of Netanyahu: “Lech” (Leave).
Their wish came true, and Netanyahu was ousted. A government of change, initially headed by Naftali Bennett (and since replaced by Yair Lapid), was sworn in on June 13, 2021. The energy, passion and sheer numbers these protesters brought to their cause, many Israelis believes, played a key role in Netanyahu’s downfall after a consecutive 12 years in power.
Now, with the former prime minister vying for power once again, the protesters are back, waving their Israeli and black flags the bridges once again on Saturday evenings. But this time around, they have a somewhat different message, reflecting the fact that Netanyahu is no longer in power. Their new banners feature a retooled demand: “Lo tachzor” (You shall not return).
Elections are just a month away, and the black flag protests – as they were called during the last round – are slowly but surely gaining momentum. From a handful of bridges and intersections little more than a month ago, they now span the length of the entire country, from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south. This past Saturday evening, according to leaders of the movement, protesters had gathered at nearly 130 points around the country.
What is drawing them back is not just the fear that Netanyahu could win a sixth term – and based on most polls, the chances of that happening are significant – but also their understanding that if he does form the next government, it is likely to be the most right-wing, religious and racist that Israel has known.
Indeed, if Netanyahu is able to cobble together a 61-seat majority with his “natural” allies of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, his detractors warn, that could spell the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of democracy in Israel. Netanyahu, they are convinced, would give his coalition partners whatever they demand in exchange for their support for legislation that keeps him out of jail.
Rami Matan, a storied Yom Kippur War veteran, has been a driving force in the revival of the Saturday evening bridge protests. “When new elections were called, we understood we could no longer just sit around idly,” he says. “This is a battle for our home.”
If Netanyahu wins the November 1 election, Matan believes, Israel’s survival as a democratic state would be at stake. “Democracies fall in two ways – by military coups or by dictatorships that come to power through democratic means,” he says. “A military coup isn’t relevant for Israel, but the other option – and I will refrain from bringing up examples from history – that is definitely a possibility.”
Last Saturday evening, while protesting on a bridge near his home on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Matan was physically assaulted by a Netanyahu supporter. The attacker was well-known Likud activist Rami Ben-Yehuda, who arrived at the bridge with a megaphone in hand and began taunting the small group of protesters gathered there with their flags. When they confronted him, video footage of the encounter shows, he punched Matan in the head.
Despite ending that night in the emergency room, Matan is determined to carry on. “In the Yom Kippur War, we fought an enemy from without; now we are fighting an enemy from within,” he says.
This was not the first-time anti-Netanyahu protesters were attacked, and in all likelihood, it will not be the last. A week before Matan was struck in the head, another protester – himself no spring chicken – had his head bashed by a young man passing by on a dune buggy who struck him with his helmet on a bridge near Hod Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv. A week before that, passersby threw rocks at protesters out on a bridge near Rishon Lezion, in central Israel.