Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, was reportedly pushed and punched as he left the stage at the Haaretz newspaper’s Peace Conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday afternoon, party sources said.
Bennett was heckled when he went on stage to speak at the conference, to the point where he could not begin his talk.
Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken went on stage to quiet the crowd. “There are people here who were prepared to speak with [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat. You can also listen to Bennett,” he said.
Once the crowd quieted down, Bennett delivered his talk, which was interrupted multiple times by shouts of “fascist” and “murderer” from the audience, according to Jewish Home officials.
When Bennett left the stage, he was jostled by multiple members of the audience, the sources said. The crowd reportedly had to be pushed aside by Bennett’s security detail to allow him to leave.
During the jostling, Bennett was reportedly punched in the back; he spun around and demanded to know who had punched him. Before he could receive an answer, his security detail spirited him out of the hall.
The left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, which organized the conference, said Bennett “took advantage of the inappropriate behavior of a single conference participant who jostled him gently in order to claim he was punched and to create headlines by misleading the press.”
Several witnesses, the paper said, “including various journalists, said there was no punch, and that Bennett was surrounded by security guards at that moment who did not feel the need to intervene or detain any of those present.”
The paper “invited Bennett and other right-wing figures to the peace conference, just like it invites them to participate in its opinion section, in order to create an open, democratic and pluralistic dialogue. We are saddened that Minister Bennett chose to take advantage of this opportunity in order to besmirch the conference’s attendees and Haaretz itself.”
Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) condemned the attack and the heckling.
“The audience that allowed me to express my opinion and worldview at the peace conference was obliged to allow Naftali Bennett to do the same, even if it doesn’t accept his opinion,” Herzog said.
“This is a fundamental principle of democratic discourse,” Herzog added, “and you don’t do to your neighbor what you don’t want done to you. Naftali Bennett is our opponent, but it is his right to express his opinion, and our right to argue with him democratically, not through heckling and pushing.”
In a statement following the incident, the Jewish Home party expressed “shock and disgust at the attack on Minister Bennett today at the Haaretz Peace Conference in Tel Aviv. The calls of ‘murderer’ from the audience and the silencing that turned to physical violence are serious and unforgivable in Israel’s political life,” the party statement said.
“We expect that anyone who values freedom of expression, on the left and the right, will condemn [the reported attack]. We will never be silenced and won’t stop expressing our views, come what may.”