For Israel’s Netanyahu, the official residence became a fortress

Ensconced as unusually long-term tenants in the official prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu and his family turned the 1930s stone-clad mansion into what many critics described as an imperial fortress.

>> Isabel KershnerThe New York Times
Published : 15 June 2021, 05:59 AM
Updated : 15 June 2021, 05:59 AM

Over the past 12 years of his premiership, Balfour Street became synonymous with Netanyahu and his family. To ask what was happening at Balfour was to wonder aloud about what new political machination they might be up to, or what family scandal might be underway.

But in the past year, Balfour Street suddenly began to stand for something extra: the most raucous and sustained protest movement in Israel’s contemporary history. Every Saturday night, demonstrators came to Netanyahu’s doorstep to call for his resignation and condemn corruption. They came in the thousands with humorous signs, dressed up in costumes, chanting, beating pots and drums and blowing horns.

That yearlong demonstration ended Sunday night after Parliament voted Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, out of office and installed a new government.

By Monday morning, there was little trace of the drama that has rocked the compound save for a couple of discarded placards and a portable toilet just outside the security barrier on the sidewalk.

A lone sympathiser appeared briefly and bellowed through a bullhorn his support for Netanyahu, popularly known as Bibi, and strident repudiation of Naftali Bennett, his successor.

But anti-Netanyahu sentiment remains present in the neighbourhood.

“I’m happy that Bibi’s gone,” said Avital Ende, 27, who lives a block from the residence, “but I’m not so sure about Bennett.”

On Monday morning, she was waiting for the bus to take her to Hebrew University, where she studies art history. She described herself as a left-winger, and said she feared Bennett’s nationalism.

Israelis are now debating what role the Balfour protests may have played in unseating Netanyahu, who spent 12 consecutive years in office, and 15 overall, and in breaking the political deadlock that sent Israelis to the ballot box four times in two years.

Now the leader of the opposition, Netanyahu skipped the traditional handover ceremony, merely meeting Bennett alone for half an hour Monday. He has vowed to bring down Bennett’s government, which he has branded as “left-wing.”

The prime minister’s office could not immediately say when the Netanyahus might leave Balfour. A person close to the family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private affairs, said the subject had not come up for discussion but noted that some previous prime ministers had received a grace period of up to two months before vacating the residence.

Named for Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary whose declaration more than a century ago laid the diplomatic foundations for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Balfour Street became a byword for what detractors saw as the increasingly polarizing, anti-democratic and monarchical impulses of Netanyahu, his wife, Sara, and their elder son, Yair. Many saw them as having royal delusions. Battling corruption charges, Netanyahu railed against the police, the mainstream news media and the judiciary and accused them of plotting to overthrow him.

The term “Balfour” also came to denote a political concept identified by Ben Caspit, an Israeli commentator and author of two Netanyahu biographies. In the prime minister’s circles, Caspit said, people began to speak of which policies or decisions would or would not win the approval of “the house,” which at first meant Sara Netanyahu, and in more recent years, also referred to Yair Netanyahu.

“It was a three-member board of directors,” Caspit said, “and Bibi did not have a majority.”

The person close to the Netanyahu family said that while Sara Netanyahu and Yair Netanyahu expressed their opinions, he had never seen any extraordinary interference in decision-making to justify the reputation they had gained.

Still, fears about the corrosion of Israel’s liberal democracy and corruption set the stage for the protest movement. It began in late 2016 with a few dozen activists who demonstrated every Saturday night near the home of the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, in the central city of Petah Tikva, as he mulled charging Benjamin Netanyahu with criminal offenses.

“I have no doubt that without the Petah Tikva protests, Mandelblit would have buried the investigation,” said Ishay Hadas, one of the early protesters who led a group called “Crime Minister.”

That phase fizzled out in 2019 after Mandelblit decided to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing. But when his government cited health reasons during the coronavirus pandemic to limit the activities of the courts, leading to the postponement of his trial, and then of Parliament, another grassroots group, Black Flags, began organizing convoys of cars to Jerusalem.

Then, in June 2020, Amir Haskel, a former general and air force pilot and a veteran of the Petah Tikva protests, decided to set up camp on the sidewalk outside Balfour and demand Netanyahu’s resignation. A few supporters, many of them grandparents, joined him. Two weeks after he arrived, he was arrested by the police, suspected of organising protests that blocked roads, and spent a weekend in jail.

The widely publicized arrest ignited public outrage. Haskel’s supporters asked where the young people were. About two weeks later, on July 14, they came out in force to celebrate Bastille Day, flooding the main streets around Balfour. The Saturday night protests began to draw people from all over the country.

“We are all graduates of the 1973 Yom Kippur war,” Haskel said in an interview during a mass protest that summer. “Then, we saved the country from outside enemies. Now we feel we have to save it from a dictatorship and a prime minister who is corrupt and corrupting.”

It felt wonderful, he said, to see the young out on the streets, adding, “They used to call us the old geezers.”

The protests attracted a cross-section of Israelis. Many adopted the slogan “Not left, not right, straight” to express their disgust with corruption. Some favoured obscene props.

The protests were peaceful, but the police used force to disperse demonstrators after midnight and blasted them with water cannons. Netanyahu and his loyalists portrayed the protesters as left-wing radicals in order to delegitimise them. Yair Netanyahu mocked them as “aliens.”

As pandemic lockdowns placed restrictions on movement and gatherings, protesters gathered on bridges and at major junctions across the country and even within their own neighbourhoods.

The anti-Netanyahu activists insist that the protests were a major factor in bringing down Benjamin Netanyahu or at least in helping create a new discourse of diversity that is reflected in the new government.

“The protest created a consciousness that wasn’t there before,” said Hadas of Crime Minister.

Or-ly Barlev, an Israeli social activist and independent journalist, began documenting the protests in Petah Tikva in 2017, and then the Balfour protests, livestreaming them on social media.

Netanyahu’s determination to remain in office even after being charged with corruption had been legitimised, Barlev said, by the authorities, including the attorney general, his coalition partners, the Supreme Court judges and other lawmakers. “So what was left,” she said, “was the public, the last frontier, the last of the gatekeepers who said it’s not legitimate.”

Barlev credited the protests with a split in Likud after Gideon Saar, a conservative rival of Netanyahu, left to form his own party, which has since joined the new government. “Saar left Likud because he understood that the public sentiment was not with Bibi,” she said.

But Caspit, the biographer, said the protests may have shored up Netanyahu, who exploited fears of the left to rally his base.

“Most of the protest people are great people who sacrificed their time and their health for what they believed in,” Caspit said. Yet he doubted that the protest had hastened Netanyahu’s exit, “and maybe the opposite.”

Regardless, a few dozen Balfour protesters gathered for the last time to celebrate outside Parliament on Sunday, while thousands more filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square for an after-party.

“For me, it wasn’t about whether my actions could bring down the government, but about being able to stand in front of my children, my friends and my family and say I did everything I could,” said Gal Kimel, who works in high tech and joined the gathering outside Parliament.

On Sunday night, the street outside Balfour had been taken over by a few dozen pro-Netanyahu demonstrators. The space that had long been associated with those who wanted to see Netanyahu go had been claimed by loyalists hailing him as the “King of Israel.”

Ariel Iluz, a student of architecture and a Likud activist, had printed himself a T-shirt with a silhouette of Netanyahu wearing Blues Brothers-like shades and the logo: “I’ll be back.” He said that Netanyahu’s promise to fight his way back to power had lifted morale among his supporters.

On Monday, Netanyahu tried to keep up the momentum. “Thank you to all those who came yesterday to demonstrate their support at Balfour,” Netanyahu wrote on Monday on Twitter. “We love you! We are not afraid of a long road.”

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