Deputy Knesset speaker: Anti-overhaul protesters in US are ‘worse’ than Iran, PLO

Amid outrage over PM’s assertion that anti-overhaul demonstrators are ‘teaming up’ with Israel’s enemies, far-right minister calls them ‘wild anarchists’ and ‘evil people’

Deputy Knesset Speaker Likud MK Nissim Vaturi at a discussion and vote on the coalition's reasonableness bill at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, July 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy Knesset Speaker Likud MK Nissim Vaturi at a discussion and vote on the coalition's reasonableness bill at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, July 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition continued Tuesday to rail against protesters staging rallies against the premier during his visit to the United States, with a minister calling them “evil” and a lawmaker saying were “worse” than Iran and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Netanyahu drew outraged reactions Monday by accusing protesters against the judicial overhaul of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities against him abroad, which he framed as being against Israel rather than against the actions of his hardline government.

Netanyahu made the contentious comments as he departed for his week-long trip to the United States. Protesters against the coalition’s attempts to curb the judiciary’s oversight powers have been hounding Netanyahu on his travels and during his scheduled meetings, and have vowed to continue doing so.

In a later statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu had been referring to the fact that what he called the “demonstrations against Israel” would be held, while he speaks to the UN on Friday, at the same time as protests by pro-PLO and pro-BDS activists. The statement made no reference to the fact that Netanyahu had also linked the protesters to Iran.

On Tuesday, Likud MK Nissim Vaturi, a deputy speaker of the Knesset, was asked during a radio interview with the Kan public broadcaster about Netanyahu’s comment regarding Iran and the PLO.

“One fact is that they are joining up with them with the demonstrations today and they are worse than them,” Vaturi claimed in response. “You see that they are ruining it for the State of Israel.”

Activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, in Tel Aviv, on September 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The comment was barely challenged by the interviewer, and the interview went on to other subjects without Vaturi being asked to explain his remark.

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu from the far-right Otzma Yehudit party also disparaged the protesters, calling them “evil” and “wild anarchists.”

“These are protests against the State of Israel, wild anarchists are demonstrating against the state,” Eliyahu told the Ynet news site.

“I’ve heard from foreign diplomats who say ‘they’re harming you.’ The protesters aren’t brothers, [they’re] a bunch of evil people harming all of us,” he asserted.

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu arrives at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich claimed that the protesters abroad against the judicial overhaul were “BDS activists who harm Israel,” and that by backing the protesters, opposition leaders had “crossed all the red lines.” BDS refers to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement against Israel.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen also issued a barb at anti-government demonstrators in a social media post sent as he traveled to New York.

“When we were in the opposition, we never spoke out against the State of Israel in the world,” Cohen, a member of the ruling Likud party, claimed on the X platform. “The protests against Netanyahu overseas and the defamation against him in Israel cross a red line and are illegitimate.”

Transportation Minister Miri Regev of Likud, a longtime Netanyahu loyalist, also hit out at the demonstrators, accusing them of “shaming the State of Israel and harming the country’s legitimacy, citizens and democracy.”

Likud minister May Golan upped the ante, accusing the protesters of employing “propaganda terrorism” and saying that “not only have they joined forces with enemies of Israel — they themselves are enemies of Israel.”

Protesters rally outside Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits with businessman Elon Musk on September 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Coalition whip Ofir Katz of Likud tweeted that “factually, until today those who protested against representatives of the government abroad and in particular at the UN were Israel haters, in demonstrations that were accompanied by PLO flags. Now they are leading to the same result — harm to the State of Israel.”

The anti-overhaul protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people for the past eight months from innumerable sectors of Israeli society including academics, business leaders, legal professionals, military and security experts, reservists, members of the security establishment, and members of the tech sector. Warning that the coalition’s legislation to radically constrain the judiciary and shift greater power to the political majority will spell the end of Israeli democracy, the protests have been led, among others, by military veterans and supported by past heads and former senior officers in the IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad security agencies.

Abroad, expat activists have proved to be a persistent thorn in the side of government ministers and Knesset members during recent visits to New York and other cities in the US, using a network of sympathizers to pursue the lawmakers.

David Ginsborg (L) protests outside of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hotel in San Jose, September 18, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Netanyahu was set to meet with a host of world leaders during his trip to the US, which also featured a sit-down Monday with billionaire Elon Musk, who is facing accusations of amplifying antisemitism on his X social media platform and is embroiled in a feud with the Anti-Defamation League.

The highest-profile sit-down will be the long-awaited visit with US President Joe Biden in a format that is sure to disappoint the prime minister, who has been angling for a visit to the White House since he returned to office as head of a right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition in late December. Instead, Biden has sufficed with a Netanyahu meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly. The premier is set to address the gathering of world leaders on Friday morning local time.

The Biden administration has held off on an invitation to the White House amid the massive protests and fierce opposition to the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul bid, which Washington has repeatedly warned against.

Netanyahu will also meet South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, among others.

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