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Herzog: 'What’s next? Knives? Gunfire?'

Herzog seeks to reduce ‘extremism’ and ‘violence’ in charged pre-election climate

Amid activist altercations, political recriminations and polarized atmosphere, president says he is ‘disturbed and worried,’ calls for moderation

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Preside Isaac Herzog addresses a Selichot event at his official residence in Jerusalem on September 28, 2022 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Preside Isaac Herzog addresses a Selichot event at his official residence in Jerusalem on September 28, 2022 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog condemned political extremism and violence across Israel’s political spectrum on Wednesday, calling on leaders and citizens alike to lower the flames or risk escalation in the run-up to November’s election.

Rejecting both verbal violence and physical altercations, the president implored Israelis and their leaders to “not let the voices of extremism and violence lead us into an abyss of hatred,” and said that “we must not view those who think differently from us as enemies.”

“I am disturbed and worried. The violent incidents of recent days and weeks are keeping me awake at night,” Herzog added during a Selichot service hosted at his official Jerusalem residence. Selichot are penitential prayers said in the lead-up to Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

Among recent incidents, a salaried Likud activist punched a war hero protester against Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and the mayor of Ramat Gan refused to remove an inflammatory election poster that directed the Jewish New Year prayer to “expel our enemies” against a trio of Arab lawmakers.

Herzog’s remarks come at the meeting point of politics and Jewish religion. While only 34 days out from the fifth national election in under four years, Israel is in the midst of some of the most somber days in the Jewish calendar. The ten days between the start of the Jewish year on Rosh Hashanah and next Tuesday’s Yom Kippur are considered days of spiritual reflection and repentance.

Wednesday was also the Fast of Gedaliah, which commemorates a politically motivated murder. Drawing a parallel between the assassination of the Jewish governor of biblical Judea to the present day, Herzog said that rising verbal violence “never remains that way” and that insults are already turning “into curled fists, into assaults, into bloodshed.”

Likud activist Rami Ben Yehuda is seen punching retired Col. Rami Matan at a bridge near Jerusalem, September 24, 2022. (Screenshot: Twitter, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“One cannot avoid the disturbing thought: what’s next? Knives? Gunfire? Fatalities?” Herzog asked, saying that “we have already been through this story.”

He was alluding to one of Israel’s most painful cases of political violence, when then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Jewish extremist Yigal Amir in 1995.

Political threats and polarization were rampant in the lead-up to Rabin’s murder, as the left and right battled over the shape of the state in the shadow of the Oslo Accords and increased Palestinian autonomy.

“Before your next nasty post, before your next hate-filled tweet or reply, before fighting, attacking and hitting — stop! Don’t come along later seeking forgiveness or apologizing — stop now,” the president called out.

Rather, Herzog cautioned politicians and voters across the spectrum to be “a voice of moderation and responsibility” in the charged pre-election atmosphere.

The president’s Wednesday remarks were his strongest to date on the current election. Although Herzog shares the title of former Labor party head with Rabin, as president, his political role is formally reduced to tasking a party head with forming a coalition government after the election.

Otzma Yehudit leader and MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to students at Blich High School in Ramat Gan, September 20, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Nevertheless, Herzog reportedly has met with MKs in recent weeks to express his resolve to help form a cross-spectrum unity government in the fall.

The current climate, however, does not seem to favor that vision. Among the “verbal violence” Herzog cited were “accusations of treason, comparisons to the Nazis, threats and curses — in the public sphere and on social media.”

Right-wing parties have said some Arabs and their politicians are “disloyal,” Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman compared Netanyahu to the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, a popular sketch comedy show compared far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir to Adolf Hitler, Labor leader Merav Michaeli said Ben Gvir is causing “destruction” to the country, and mud and accusations have routinely flown across all corners of the spectrum.

Herzog has stressed unity as a constant theme throughout his presidency, and emphasized that Israel’s fractured political scene needs to find a path forward, because “we are all here together, and nobody is going anywhere.”

“Let us prove that there is a way to make important decisions without dismantling our home. Let us remember that we have a country to live in together, the day after the elections as well,” the president said.

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