Netanyahu: 'Democracies don't arrest opposition chiefs'

Coalition MK calls for arrest of ‘treasonous’ opposition heads Lapid, Gantz

Zvika Fogel of far-right Otzma Yehudit says ex-premier and other politicians should be locked up for backing mass protests against judicial makeover and warning of civil war

MK Zvika Fogel, Otzma Yehudit, poses at the Knesset on November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
MK Zvika Fogel, Otzma Yehudit, poses at the Knesset on November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A lawmaker from Itamar Ben Gvir’s extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party called Tuesday afternoon for the arrest of opposition leaders and two former MKs, accusing them of “treason against the state” and saying they “are the most dangerous people right now,” sparking widespread condemnation among the center-left and also, later Tuesday, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

MK Zvika Fogel, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, made the remarks in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster, responding to comments by Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz and former MKs Yair Golan and Moshe Ya’alon against plans by the government to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.

“This is crazy. These four should be arrested. These are the most dangerous people right now,” he said.

Asked by the incredulous interviewer if she had heard him correctly, Fogel doubled down.

“That’s exactly what I said. These four are now talking about war… 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,” he said.

He added: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s treason against the state, if I wasn’t clear enough.”

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.

Gantz on Monday accused Netanyahu of “leading toward civil war,” 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.

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.

Then-Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz (right) and Yair Lapid during a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Commenting on Fogel’s interview, Lapid tweeted: “It was obvious that this would come. In non-democratic countries, the leadership always threatens to arrest opposition leaders.”

“This is how democracy falls apart, in a day,” he added. “Ben Gvir says to use water cannons against our protesters, MK Fogel says Gantz and I should be arrested and thrown in jail for treason, and in Beersheba, a man tries to run over students [who support us] for rallying and making use of their right to free speech. We will not allow ourselves or our beloved country to be overrun.”

National Unity MK Gadi Eisenkot, who like Gantz and Ya’alon is a former IDF chief of staff, called on Fogel to “take back his severe remarks.” He urged Netanyahu to “immediately condemn” the comments, adding: “A coalition that calls for the arrest of opposition leaders is unacceptable in a democracy.”

Gantz issued a fiery statement that didn’t directly comment on Fogel’s remark, saying that Israel “needs wide agreements and not the continuation of incitement and factionalism.” He demanded that Netanyahu “condemn the attacks on protesters and the severe remarks,” urging him to “act to heal the nation’s rifts, not to widen them.”

Initially keeping silent on the matter, Netanyahu’s office later 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.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a video conversation with members of AIPAC from his office in Jerusalem on January 9, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Likud called on “everyone — from right and left — to calm the waters,” adding: “Words carry significance and we are entering dangerous territory. Even in times of deep disagreement, the job of public leaders is to preserve national unity.”

Likud MK Danny Danon tweeted that “the comments made today in the heat of the discourse are unacceptable,” saying that while he is ideologically opposed to Lapid and Gantz and views their recent remarks as no less harmful, “the calls to imprison them cross all the lines.”

However, Fogel received support from Tradition Minister Amichai Eliyahu, also from Otzma Yehudit.

“I don’t understand how we are not all echoing the cries of pain made by my friend Zvika Fogel,” he said, accusing Lapid, former chief justice Aharon Barak and others of “putting a potential civil war on the public agenda and undoing the civil basis that unites us, and everyone is silent.”

Otzma Yehudit MK Amichai Eliyahu speaks in the Knesset on December 6, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

A third Otzma Yehudit MK, deputy minister Almog Cohen, echoed the sentiment, telling Channel 13 that if opposition leaders continue “their incitement and desire for bloodshed on the streets — they will be put in handcuffs.”

Kan quoted unnamed Likud ministers calling the remarks “damaging” and criticizing Ben Gvir for his silence on the matter, urging him to “bring his party under control.”

Several outlets reported that Ben Gvir had pushed back against the calls to arrest the opposition figures, writing in a closed WhatsApp group with party members: “I understand everyone in light of the incitement and sedition against us, but don’t go in the direction of arresting Lapid and Gantz, no way.”

Otzma Yehudit’s Yitzhak Wasserlauf, the minister for the development of the Galilee and the Negev, subsequently released a statement saying: “I suggest that everyone calm down — that Gantz not threaten civil war, that Lapid not warn it will end in bloodshed. My brothers on the right, lets calm things down and not be drawn into provocations from the other side.”

Thousands of anti-government protesters held demonstrations in Tel Aviv on Saturday, and smaller protests have continued this week as opposition figures urge mass rallies and strikes against the government’s policies and planned changes, arguing that it is trying to neuter Israel’s democratic character. Ben Gvir has ordered police to start taking a heavier hand against the protests, including arresting those who block roads.

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