Lapid: Where were you when bullets sent to Bennett's family?

Netanyahu accuses overhaul protesters of hounding MKs in the name of free speech

Premier charges activists constantly switching message to ensure there’s ‘not one moment of peace’; Likud MKs said demanding boost in security, ban on protests near their homes

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset during a debate, in Jerusalem, on May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset during a debate, in Jerusalem, on May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday ripped into protesters opposed to his government’s efforts to overhaul the judicial system, assailing them for regularly harassing coalition lawmakers at public events.

Netanyahu made the comments a day after anti-government protesters heckled Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the overhaul plans, at an event in Tel Aviv, forcing him to leave. Netanyahu also mentioned several other incidents of anti-overhaul protesters interrupting events involving coalition lawmakers.

“In the name of democracy, in the name of freedom of expression, they prevented Simcha Rothman from speaking at Tel Aviv University,” Netanyahu said in a speech to the Knesset.

Hitting Avi Dichter, attacking Nir Barkat, expelling Boaz Bismuth from a synagogue during Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Netanyahu said, listing some incidents over the past few months.

“Is it legal to come to a public representative and chase them, threaten them and restrict their freedom of movement in a public space? This is very serious,” Netanyahu said.

During the speech, Netanyahu also charged that protesters were constantly changing their message — whether it is opposition to the state budget, or the government’s controversial plan to redistribute property taxes from richer to poorer locales — claiming this was to ensure “there will be not one moment of peace.”

Netanyahu said members of his party had described attacks and threats against them.

Responding to Netanyahu at the plenum, opposition leader Yair Lapid recalled the similar harassment and regular heckling directed toward members of the previous government, which Lapid headed in a power-sharing deal with Naftali Bennett.

“You’re speaking of incitement?” Lapid said. “Where were you when bullets were sent to the son and wife of Bennett? … You’re speaking of MKs being hounded? Don’t you know what happened outside the home of [former Yamina MK] Nir Orbach? What were you doing for a year and a half besides inciting violently and viciously?”

During a closed-door Likud faction meeting Monday, lawmakers said they needed a security boost since demonstrators regularly accost them at events, the Ynet news site reported. The prime minister said he will look into the matter, the report said.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis was said to tell the meeting that his neighbors were trying to expel him from his Tel Aviv neighborhood: “They put a note on my car window that read ‘You aren’t wanted here.'”

MK Keti Shitrit claimed that she had appealed to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on the matter, but that he had not taken action.

MKs Yuli Edelstein, Moshe Saada and Hanoch Milwidsky also complained about threats from protesters.

A separate report by Channel 12 news said lawmakers for the ruling party had suggested passing legislation prohibiting demonstrations outside public servants’ homes, citing regular disruptions to their daily lives.

The report said MK Danny Danon had floated the suggestion, which Netanyahu was considering.

“Senior Likud members can’t go around without protest representatives accompanying them,” MK Tally Gotliv was quoted as saying.

MK Yuli Edelstein reportedly said: “I’m not easily scared, but I don’t know how I would have survived this situation had I not been protected due to my position.”

The report said Netanyahu answered: “Don’t stop [your activities], and we aren’t either. I tell you this as someone who gets this everywhere. By the way, they don’t have a geographical limitation — they reach London, they reach Rome, they reach everywhere.”

MK Simcha Rothman chairs a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators, including some university students and faculty, obstructed Rothman’s entry into a building where a panel discussion on the proposed judicial overhaul was set to take place.

Security personnel eventually cleared the way, enabling Rothman, the chair of the Knesset Constitution Committee, to enter the premises. However, his comments during the panel were persistently interrupted by demonstrators chanting “Democracy!” and calling Rothman a fascist.

In response, the Religious Zionism MK countered: “Your argument is weak. You’re unable to intellectually confront [my arguments], so you resort to shouting?” He also sought to blame the protesters for the economic repercussions of the overhaul, claiming: “It is not the legal revolution hurting the economy, but those here crying wolf.”

After he was unable to fully participate in the panel, Rothman was escorted out of the building by security guards and placed in a campus security vehicle that brought him to his car — which had been covered in anti-government stickers by protesters.

Education Minister Yoav Kisch wrote a letter to the heads of universities on Monday over the protest at Rothman’s appearance, accusing them of facilitating a “serious attack on freedom of expression in academia.”

“You have acted in an extreme political way to silence an entire camp that thinks differently from you,” he said, and urged them to “change your ways.”

“I am not surprised you led the academic establishment to this difficult situation. I am sorry that there’s no real freedom of expression in academia. On the one hand, you are fighting to protect freedom of expression of the extreme left, while at the same time, the other side of the political map is violently silenced within academic halls,” he wrote.

Protesters lift flags during a rally protesting the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv on May 27, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

After rushing a range of overhaul bills through the Knesset to the brink of full passage, Netanyahu announced in late March a pause in order to allow for compromise talks aimed at reaching a broad agreement. Talks are ongoing but have yet to yield results.

The premier told the Likud faction meeting on Monday that the overhaul was “not dead.” According to a Likud representative, however, Netanyahu did tell his fellow party members at the faction meeting that Likud must make every effort in the ongoing discussions with the opposition in order to reach broadly accepted agreements.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people demonstrated nationwide against the judicial overhaul plans for the 21st consecutive week.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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