Jerusalem protests show rage against Netanyahu is no longer waiting for the end of the war

Sunday’s rally recalled last year’s anti-overhaul events. But the agenda is very different, some hostages’ families have taken the gloves off, and the PM has good reason for concern

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

The major demonstration in front of the Knesset and government offices on Sunday night was something of a replica of the mass struggles against the judicial overhaul last year.

The same crop of people — generally voters for centrist parties, Meretz and Labor; the same energy as was seen in the demonstration when the Knesset repealed the High Court’s reasonableness standard last summer; the same resolve against the prime minister, who once tried to eliminate democracy, and now leads a problematic war that is getting more and more complex, with 134 hostages still held in Gaza.

For many of the demonstrators — who flooded Jerusalem’s Kaplan Street like a human tidal wave, from Cinema City, past the Knesset, to the new National Library — it was a kind of reunion after a six-month hiatus.

Nevertheless, there were a few differences between the demonstrations against the judicial overhaul and Sunday’s escalation of the struggle against Netanyahu and his government.

First, in the protests against the overhaul, serving politicians were not invited to speak onstage. They came to Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv and Paris Square in Jerusalem, mingled with the crowd and shook hands, but they didn’t take to the podium.

By contrast, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid was the keynote speaker of Sunday’s protest outside the Knesset, where he delivered a biting speech against Netanyahu: “How has he not disappeared from our lives after October 7?” asked the Yesh Atid leader. “All he cares about is the office and title, and let the country burn.”

It may be that the decision to let opposition politicians speak is a mistake that will make it more difficult to expand the protest to other parts of the public, especially the moderate right, but this was the strategy decided upon by Brothers in Arms, the dominant bloc Sunday on the streets of Jerusalem.

Kippah-wearers were not in evidence at Sunday’s demonstration. Somebody who was there, however, was Arnon Ben-David, chairman of the Histadrut trade union federation, and that may prove significant going forward.

Second, given the circumstances, in the wake of the October 7 disaster, the entire agenda has of course shifted, with added resolve and rage. The legal overhaul is off the table; now it’s the hostages issue, the Haredi conscription crisis, the conduct of politicians, and an insistent call, if not for Netanyahu to go home, then at least for new elections.

The alliance between many of the hostages’ families and the anti-government protesters that was declared on Saturday night in Tel Aviv expanded Sunday outside the Knesset.

Emcee Einat Erlich called on ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot to leave the coalition and join the struggle for elections.

Carmit Palty-Katzir from Kibbutz Nir Oz, whose father Rami was murdered on October 7, mother Hannah was freed from Gaza in November in dire medical condition, and brother Elad remains in Hamas captivity, announced in an emotional speech that the hostages’ families were taking the gloves off.

“Step down,” she demanded of Netanyahu. “The return of the hostages comes before anything else,” she said, reflecting the demonstrators’ widespread belief that the prime minister has different priorities.

The demonstrators, who are holding protests in Jerusalem through Wednesday, set up hundreds of tents in front of the Knesset and the adjacent Gan Sacher. The rage is no longer waiting for the end of the war, because nobody knows when it will end, and the fear is that each passing day may cost the lives of more hostages.

Tents set up outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 31, 2024, as part of a multi-day protest calling for the government to resign and new elections to be held. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

It is true that the blockade of Begin Road later Sunday, and the bonfires that were lit, are not legal. It underlines the feeling among the demonstrators, and in particular the family members of hostages, that they have tried everything and have nothing more to lose.

The main achievement of the protest was in the number of demonstrators. The protest against the judicial overhaul began with a few hundred; Sunday’s protest against Netanyahu drew 100,000 people, according to the organizers. No wonder Netanyahu is stressed.

Just before he was hospitalized for hernia surgery on Saturday night, Netanyahu gave a press conference in which, as he has many times in recent weeks and months, he derided the demand for new elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 31, 2024. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

“The call for elections now, a moment before victory, would paralyze Israel for at least half a year,” he said. “It would paralyze the negotiations for freeing our hostages, it would bring the war to an end before its goals are completely achieved, and the first that would welcome this is Hamas, and that tells you everything.”

Maybe Netanyahu is right, maybe not. What is certain is that he can no longer rely on a 100,000-person counter-protest outside the Knesset to support him, as he did last April during the government’s push for the judicial overhaul. Those days are over. And it could be that time is running out for a prime minister who is understandably afraid of elections and the decision of the people.

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