Ben Gvir: Israel a democracy, but I understand calls to lock up opposition chiefs

Otzma Yehudit lawmakers defend fellow party member who called for placing Lapid and Gantz in cuffs, saying it was only meant metaphorically, and that other side’s remarks are worse

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2023. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2023. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Wednesday that he “really, really understands” a fellow faction member’s call to lock up opposition leaders who oppose the new government — but conceded that it won’t happen.

“No one is going to arrest opponents of the government, we are a democracy and Israel will continue being a democracy, but I really, really understand their feelings,” Ben Gvir said during an Army Radio interview.

His comments came a day after Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel called for jailing opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, and former MKs Yair Golan and Moshe Ya’alon for their denunciation of the Netanyahu coalition’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

“This is crazy. These four should be arrested. These are the most dangerous people right now,” Fogel said in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster.

“These four are now talking about war,” Fogel added. “If they were calling for protests, I’d give them every right to protest. But they’re talking in terms of me being an enemy.”

“When Zvika Fogel wakes up every morning to threats against him and to his country and our country, he has something to say,” Ben Gvir said.

Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel in Jerusalem on November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“When [Otzma Yehudit MK] Almog Cohen — who is also threatened by all sorts of anarchists — wakes up and hears about civil uprisings, that things will end in bloodshed, that there will be a civil war — what do you expect,” Ben Gvir said.

Cohen had echoed Fogel’s sentiment, telling Channel 13 that if opposition leaders continue “their incitement and desire for bloodshed on the streets — they will [indeed] be put in handcuffs.”

Otzma Yehudit’s Almog Cohen (L) and Yitzhak Wasserlauf at the Knesset, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Cohen stood by his comments on Wednesday, telling Channel 12 that they were legitimate and lamenting that similar demands for retraction were not voiced when members of the opposing political camp called for civil revolt or for law enforcement to ignore orders from the new government.

“There are laws in the State of Israel that say that if someone incites and rebels against the government or incites a riot — he is breaking the law. This is the law and I did not legislate it,” Cohen told Channel 12.

Cohen clarified that he did not mean Gantz and Lapid should literally be put in handcuffs, but should be brought in and ordered to cease their rhetoric — and that an investigative committee should be established to adjudicate the role of opposition leaders if blood is indeed spilled in the streets.

Another member from the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, told Channel 12 that Fogel’s comments were “minuscule” in comparison to ones made by opposition lawmakers who warned that the government’s judicial overhaul plans could lead to civil war.

Eliyahu also argued that the use of the word “arrest” by his fellow faction members was purely metaphorical.

Likud MK Danny Danon in the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud MK Danny Danon told the Kan public broadcaster Wednesday that the remarks by Fogel were “harmful to the state of Israel” and damaged efforts to advance the judicial reforms that the government has promoted.

“This discourse only weakens us and boosts our enemies,” Danon claimed.

Fogel is slated to become head of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee in several weeks’ time, giving him oversight over the police force, which is under the purview of Otzma Yehudit leader Ben Gvir, the new minister of national security.

Fogel’s comments drew widespread condemnation, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose office issued a statement saying that he had told President Isaac Herzog in a phone call: “In a democratic country, opposition chiefs aren’t arrested, just like government ministers aren’t called Nazis, Jewish governments aren’t called the Third Reich and civil disobedience among the public isn’t encouraged.”

A large Saturday evening Tel Aviv protest against the government’s judicial reform platform included placards comparing the government and the justice minister, Yariv Levin, to Nazis, behavior that Netanyahu said should be condemned by the opposition.

Lapid, Gantz, Golan and Ya’alon have lambasted the new government’s plan to implement a sweeping judicial reform that critics say would neuter the country’s judiciary and allow the government to harm minority rights while eliminating oversight by legal advisers and the High Court of Justice.

Protesters hold signs, including one with Nazi-style imagery, at an anti-government rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. The sign on the left reads ‘Know from where you came and where you are going.’ The second sign reads ‘We won’t allow ayatollahs.’ (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz on Monday accused Netanyahu of “leading toward civil war,” and Lapid urged his supporters to take to the streets as part of a “war over our home.” Golan has called for “civil disobedience,” and Ya’alon has urged the police chief to defy orders by National Security Minister Ben Gvir, who has been given unprecedented powers over the police as part of the new coalition, with greater authority to dictate policy.

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