TEL AVIV, Israel — A 66-year-old soft-spoken, bespectacled grandfather who shies away from the spotlight has emerged as a new face of the opposition to scandal-plagued Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Retired Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel, who has written books on the Holocaust, said that period had shown him that standing aside was not an option as Netanyahu, in his view, chipped away at Israel’s democratic foundations.
“I deeply understood that the tendency of most people is to stand on the sideline,” he said of his insight into the Holocaust. “I also learned how dangerous it is.”
So in 2016, around the time corruption allegations against Netanyahu surfaced, Haskel took to the streets. His protest did not take off and at its peak, he mustered 80 people to demonstrate at intersections across the country.
Almost four years later, he emerged — after his public arrest during a demonstration in June — as a leader of the protests demanding Netanyahu step down while under indictment on corruption charges.
Since June, Haskel’s grassroots "No Way” movement has joined other groups to demonstrate outside the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, where protesters have gathered holding placards emblazoned with slogans like “crime minister.”
“When I stood alone for all those years, my dream was to turn this protest from an individual one to a mass protest and now this is really happening,” he told NBC News by phone. “There is no way that a person indicted for criminal charges will head the state of Israel.”
Netanyahu, 70, was indicted on corruption charges in November and is the first sitting prime minister to be charged with a crime. He denies any wrongdoing.
But it is Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus crisis that has really turned the tide of public opinion against him. Last month, Israel was forced to reimpose sweeping restrictions on daily life after cases soared in the weeks after the lockdown measures were lifted.
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Faced with a second wave of illness and skyrocketing unemployment, the public trust in Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic crashed, according to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute. At the outset of the pandemic, the majority of the public trusted Netanyahu’s management, but by mid-July that proportion had plummeted to less than 30 percent, the survey found.
Thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weeks demanding Netanyahu resign for what they see as his bungled response to the crisis and its economic fallout. For many, the economic pain has exacerbated their perception of Netanyahu as an out-of-touch hedonist who pushes policies he deems politically expedient but which are often not the priority of Israelis.
Economic repercussions of the coronavirus have also brought younger generations to the streets — a demographic Haskel said he had previously found difficult to reach.
“People are hungry for bread, workplaces are shut down and at the same time, our PM is busy on how he gets tax reductions,” Alon Linder, 23, said at a recent demonstration in Jerusalem. “I want a change of the government.”
The weekslong protests are the largest the country has seen since rallies in 2011 demanding economic reform.
Haskel emerged as a leader after he and other activists were arrested by police June 26 at a demonstration in Jerusalem, sending hundreds of people into the streets calling for his release.
“My arrest was a turning point and caused many people who stood aside to join the protest,” he said.
Israelis found the idea of police arresting a former Air Force general as pretty “absurd,” according to Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Yet, despite his dazzling résumé, Haskel says he’s never sought the spotlight.
“The day that I reach my goal and that Netanyahu will exit our lives, I will fold the protest signs and leave Jerusalem and go back to the peace and quiet of my home and my family,” he said.
But he may have a long time to wait.
Despite the protests' momentum, it remains unclear whether they will succeed in bringing down Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Netanyahu is known as a political “magician” with a unique ability to cling to power.
“Resignation is not part of his terminology,” Plesner said.
Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv, Saphora Smith reported from London.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.