An estimated 2,000 people poured into central Tel Aviv on Saturday night to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pick of Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman as Israel’s new defense minister in last week’s coalition shakeup.
Carrying Palestinian and Israeli flags, protesters marched towards the Tel Aviv Likud party headquarters on King George street chanting: “Liberman [is a] racist and a fascist,” and “Liberman is the minister of war.”
Protesters waved banners denouncing extremism, racism, and violence in Israel, as well as signs proclaiming “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” and “Israel, Palestine, two states for two peoples.”
The rally, organized by the Joint (Arab) List, the left-wing Meretz party, and the left-wing Peace Now organization, was held under the headline “Building the opposition: A new way for Israel.”
Citing police estimates, Hebrew media reports put the number of demonstrators at around 2,000.
The marchers were joined by leftist members of the Knesset, including Meretz leader Zehava Galon and Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh.
“It’s exciting to see thousands of Jews and Arabs coming together to tell the Netanyahu government that Liberman, its defense minister, is illegitimate,” Galon told the Maariv news website during the march.
“The most racist and corrupt man received the portfolio from Netanyahu for his own political survival. Now we’re telling him: ‘Enough, get the hell out,'” she said.
“We believe that only a joint Jewish-Arab effort can beat this,” Odeh said. “We reject the assumption that all Jews hate Arabs and all Arabs hate Jews. This struggle against racism must be shared one.”
Pointing to nationalist trends, Odeh said his Joint List “is setting up the democratic camp.”
“Liberman wants to damage civil society, the Supreme Court, the [left-wing organization] Breaking the Silence, and specifically the Arab sector.
“We are together in this, Jews and Arabs, and we will overcome him,” Odeh said. “We will present a real alternative that will be able to topple this right-wing government.”
Liberman, an outspoken populist who has threatened to assassinate Hamas leaders and has called Arab lawmakers “traitors,” signed a deal bringing his five-member Yisrael Beytenu party into the coalition on Wednesday, as part of months-long efforts by Netanyahu to expand his wafer-thin 61-seat majority.
His imminent arrival as defense minister roiled the Israeli political arena, raising concerns — both inside and outside of Israel — that Netayahu’s new government will shift further to the right, toughening its policies towards Palestinians.
Liberman’s looming appointment also prompted the heated resignation of defense minister and former IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon, who, in his resignation speech on May 21, warned that “extremist and dangerous forces have taken over Israel and the Likud movement and are destabilizing our home and threatening to harm its inhabitants.”
In a rare comment on the internal politics of a US ally, last week US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the new right-wing coalition raises “legitimate questions” about the government’s commitment to a two-state solution. Toner said Washington had “seen reports from Israel describing it as the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.”
A top Palestinian official said Liberman’s as Israel’s defense minister posed a “real threat” to regional stability, and said his appointment would result in “apartheid, racism and religious and political extremism.”
In an effort to allay concerns over his appointment, Liberman has promised to act in a “responsible” manner while in office. During a joint press conference Wednesday with Netanyahu, the new defense minister pledged his commitment to “peace and to a final status agreement, and to understanding between us and our neighbors.”