Drawing a parallel between a rampaging settler riot in a Palestinian town and protests in Tel Aviv against his government’s plan to radically overhaul the country’s justice system, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday called on Israelis to “calm tensions, to stop the violence.”
But his call for calm appeared to have been overshadowed by his comparison of the two groups, which outraged his opponents.
The prime minister made a live statement from his office during prime time evening news broadcasts after a day of country-wide protests against the judicial overhaul that reached new heights of hostility.
Protests rolled across Israel, leading to at least 11 injuries and more than 50 arrests, as demonstrators clashed with the police. In Tel Aviv, demonstrators who tried to block the Ayalon Highway were handled with aggressive measures, including water cannons and stun grenades, the first time such means were used in the recent demonstrations against the planned legislation.
On Sunday, settlers rioted in the Palestinian town of Huwara in retribution for a terror attack that killed two Israelis earlier in the day in the same town. Radical settlers burned homes, cars, and stores, and assaulted Palestinians, leading to injuries and the death of a Palestinian man in unclear circumstances.
“We won’t accept violence in Huwara and we won’t accept violence in Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said.
The premier said, that in both situations, demonstrators had crossed red lines, which he defined as violence and anarchy.
Netanyahu’s statement did not include an anticipated call for compromise and talks, and instead accused the protesters of fomenting “anarchy.”
“Freedom to protest is not a license to drive the country to anarchy,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu contrasted the week’s events with the 2005 Gaza Disengagement, in which a Likud-led government unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip and four communities in northern Samaria. Still an open wound for pro-settlement elements of Israeli society, the protests were tense and contentious, leading to conflicts between evacuees and security forces.
“They went out and made a strong and determined protest,” Netanyahu said of the anti-disengagement activists. “But I’ll say one thing, that struggle didn’t cross red lines.”
Netanyahu’s assertion that those demonstrations did not include violence was false, with wide-spread unrest before and during the evacuation, which included the blocking of roads and violent clashes with security forces. Two opponents of the Disengagement also carried out deadly terror attacks against Arabs, in which eight were murdered.
Netanyahu, who voted for the Disengagement, but later claimed it was under political duress, also glossed over the fact that the current finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, was arrested and held by the Shin Bet for three weeks in 2005, on suspicion of plotting an arson attack on a busy Tel Aviv highway.
Smotrich, a far-right settler activist, was ultimately released without charge.
Netanyahu also claimed without evidence that “foreign elements” were behind some of the protests against the judicial overhaul — a common accusation against the Israeli left by some on the hard right.
Netanyahu’s comparison contrasted sharply with a speech earlier in the evening by President Herzog, who is trying to facilitate coalition-opposition talks on careful and consensual judicial reform.
Herzog praised the demonstrators as patriots concerned for the future of Israel, and said he shared their worries. “I see the protests, the anxiety and the fear that comes from the depths of your hearts — a fear that I also expressed regarding the legislation as it is being presented now. I feel very well the depth of pain, and the depth of concern for the fate of the country,” Herzog said.
Netanyahu closed his remarks by echoing calls to engage in dialogue over the judicial reform but made no commitment to pause his coalition’s legislative march — a condition heretofore stressed by opposition politicians and the president.
Netanyahu slammed the opposition, but made no mention of a call earlier in the day for immediate dialogue from the opposition’s National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, who warned that civil war could erupt amid deep divides over the legislation.
Gantz denounced Netanyahu’s speech: “Forgive me, but to carry out a pogrom in a town, to set in on fire, to kill somebody, to take a break for evening prayers, and then to carry on spreading chaos — that bears no similarity to blocking roads.”
Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid, who gave a studio interview to Channel 13 immediately after Netanyahu’s statement, dismissed it as “a series of shocking remarks.”
“A terrible statement, that deepens dispute, from a weak and dangerous man,” Lapid said.
He slammed the prime minister for comparing the Tel Aviv protests to the attack on Huwara.
“Huwara was a pogrom by terrorists,” Lapid said. “Are you going to compare that… to the people who went out today to the streets today, the best people in the country, patriots.”
Labor party chief Merav Michaeli also bristled at the comparison “between patriots who are fighting for democracy and anarchists burning homes in Huwara.”
Lapid denied that he was unwilling to talk with Netanyahu at all to reach a compromise on the controversial legislation, insisting he was open to “true talks, not deceitful” ones, and reiterated his demand that legislating the judicial changes be put on hold first. He said the pause period should be laid down by Herzog, who has offered to mediate negotiations to reach a compromise agreement.
Any dialogue, Lapid said, must be based on the principle that the process is first stopped. As for his past demand that the pause is 60 days, he said that was just a suggestion for a reasonable period, and that Herzog should decide how long is needed.
Just ahead of Netanyahu’s announcement, four lawmakers from Gantz’s National Unity party and Netanyahu’s Likud issued a joint statement calling on all parties to reach a broad agreement.
“The State of Israel is currently facing many complex challenges in the fields of society, the economy, and its international status and is facing attacks and security challenges more serious than ever before,” said the statement signed by Likud’s Danny Dannon and Yuli Edelstein along with National Unity’s Gadi Eisenkot and Chili Tropper.
“Above all of these hovers, like a dark shadow, the grave controversy that tears and divides the public in Israel regarding the various proposals concerning the Israeli justice system. We have no doubt that although the disputes are substantial, we must act in every way to reach broad agreements,” the statement said.
They urged all members of the Knesset to support the proposal for talks put forward by Herzog.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, and Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman said they were willing to answer Gantz’s call for talks, but without preconditions.
In a joint statement, Levin and Rothman said: “Gantz — let’s set a place and time and sit and talk. Without preconditions.”
But Channel 12 reported that neither was willing to stop the legislative process to do so, with plans to move forward at full speed with the various bills.