Netanyahu wraps up US visit as protesters shout ‘shame’ at departing convoy in NY

PM makes his way back to Israel ahead of Yom Kippur, touts ‘many achievements’ during trip where anti-overhaul demonstrators followed him everywhere

Protesters gather in New York on September 23, 2023, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's convoy departs for the airport following the premier's six-day trip to the US. (Screenshot: X/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Protesters gather in New York on September 23, 2023, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's convoy departs for the airport following the premier's six-day trip to the US. (Screenshot: X/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrapped up his US trip late Saturday still dogged by protesters who gathered outside his New York hotel as his convoy left for the airport. The premier was heading back to Israel and was expected to land in the early afternoon Sunday, just ahead of Yom Kippur, which begins Sunday evening.

In a brief statement aboard the flight, an upbeat Netanyahu summarized a “very successful trip,” telling delegation members that during his six-day visit to the US, he “met with about 20 heads of state across five continents” and secured “many achievements.”

The premier said he had “an excellent meeting with US President Joe Biden in which we discussed expanding the circle of peace, a continuation of the Abraham Accords that we [signed] three years ago.”

“I will continue to work hard to bring more achievements to our beloved country. More good news is coming,” he said.

The premier said his speech on Friday at the United Nations “was broadcast live not only on networks in the United States, but also in Saudi Arabia — and this is of course a blessing for the next year.”

Netanyahu devoted much of his UN address on Friday to a possible US-brokered normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, which he said would transform the Middle East. He did not mention his government’s legislative program to drastically weaken the judiciary.

Meanwhile, in his own UN address Saturday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan warned that regional security in the Middle East hinged on a “just, comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue” and made no mention of Israel or normalization efforts.

Over the course of Netanyahu’s visit this week, which began with a sit-down with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the premier met with Biden and other world leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, spoke before the UN General Assembly, sat down with American-Jewish leaders and gave a number of TV interviews in which he argued that he was trying to reach a compromise on his hardline coalition’s divisive bid to overhaul the judiciary.

The bid has sparked widespread, sustained protests that followed Netanyahu everywhere he went during his US visit, from California to New York. As he spoke at the UN on Friday, thousands of anti-overhaul protesters rallied outside.

Israeli-led protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside UN Headquarters in New York City, September 22, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

On Saturday night, as his convoy left for the airport, hundreds protested outside in the rain, shouting “shame” and “democracy,” while police secured the area.

In another clip, protesters can be seen making obscene hand gestures at the convoy.

In Israel, tens of thousands attended nationwide rallies for the 38th straight week on Saturday night against the overhaul. With Yom Kippur set to begin Sunday, the protesters echoed the theme of the Day of Atonement, and marched under the banner: “There is no forgiveness for the attempt to turn Israel into a dictatorship.”

Demonstrators highlighted developments in recent days, including increased hopes for normalization with Saudi Arabia, controversial remarks by Netanyahu against anti-overhaul protesters, and the premier’s continued refusal to commit to respecting a potential High Court judgment against overhaul legislation.

Some 100,000 people attended the main rally in Tel Aviv, according to Channel 13 news, which cited data from the Crowd Solutions firm. Following the rally at Kaplan Street, some protesters marched to the home of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana as they have done for several consecutive weeks. Smaller protests were held at dozens of locations around the country, including in Jerusalem, Haifa, Rehovot, Eilat, Karkur, along the Gaza border and elsewhere. Beersheba’s main rally was canceled due to the upcoming fast day.

A photo provided by an anti-government activist shows judicial overhaul protesters in Tel Aviv holding up a banner during a weekly rally, September 23, 2023. (Gilad Furst)

In a statement, protest leaders said “threats against the judges of the High Court and the intention to disobey their rulings will not be allowed to pass by the people of Israel.”

“Incitement [by Netanyahu and his coalition partners] against American Jewry and against the judges of the High Court of Justice and the protesters destroys us from the outside and in,” the statement read.

At the start of this week, as he left for the US amid protests at the airport, Netanyahu accused protesters against the judicial overhaul of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities against him abroad. In a later statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu was referring to the fact that what he called the “demonstrations against Israel” would be held at the same time as protests by pro-PLO and pro-BDS activists.

In Tel Aviv on Saturday, key protest leader Prof. Shikma Bressler said: “We won’t fall for any spin,” indicating the movement would not be calmed by the prime minister’s push for relations with Saudi Arabia.

“We fully understand that just like the Abraham Accords [with other Arab countries] didn’t prevent the regime coup, a deal with Saudi Arabia also won’t stop those who want a messianic dictatorship,” she said.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, speakers at the Tel Aviv rally included representatives of families who lost loved ones in that war.

“Please hear us up there, please hear the cry of the multitudes down here,” said Uzi Zavner, the brother of a soldier who fell in battle, in a message directed at those who died. “A true cry, from all over the country and the world for the protection of the country and its values, as you were privileged to know it during your short lives.

“My brothers, the heroes of glory, you are up there. We promise and swear to preserve the country and its values, just as you defended it then, for your sake and for the sake of future generations,” Zavner said.

Veterans of the war have also played a prominent role in the protests against the judicial overhaul since Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented his plan in January.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Former IDF General Amiram Levin, who was severely wounded in the war, told protesters in Haifa: “Anyone who acts to destroy the court wants only to cement his dictatorial power and doesn’t really want peace” — in reference to Netanyahu’s ongoing push for a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.

“Anyone who gives the keys of the country to a group of awful ministers is not striving for peace,” he stated.

“Even Netanyahu knows that if he reaches agreements with every Arab country in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of our democracy, it is not we in the protest movement who will thwart that,” he added.

“The obstacle is with him, with the extremists [Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich,” he said, referencing the far-right ministers who oppose making concessions to the Palestinian Authority in order to reach a deal with Riyadh.

The protests came as the High Court is deliberating petitions against the reasonableness law, although it is not expected to rule for a number of weeks, if not months.

Earlier this month, an unprecedented panel of all 15 justices presided over a highly charged session in response to petitions against the law, enacted in July, which restricts judicial review of government decisions using the standard of reasonableness.

The law is the only major component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program that has been passed by the Knesset so far, although legislation that gives the coalition almost complete control of the Judicial Selection Committee, and thus of appointing Israel’s judges, passed its first reading in March and could be passed at short notice at any time.

Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, the reasonableness law faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.

A court ruling striking down a Basic Law would be unprecedented. If the coalition were not to abide by such a ruling, it would potentially cause a constitutional crisis.

In interviews with Fox News and CNN on Friday as his visit was coming to an end, Netanyahu again refused to commit to abide by the court’s ruling.

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