Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz clashed at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, with the premier accusing protesters against him of “trampling on democracy,” while the Blue and White chief responded that people had a right to demonstrate and must be protected.
“I condemn any violence. It has no place, on either side, and we have zero tolerance for any manifestation of violence or any threat of violence,” Netanyahu said at the meeting.
“I see an attempt to trample on democracy. There is a distortion of all the rules. Nobody restricts the demonstrations. On the contrary — they are accommodating toward them,” he said. But, he added, “it’s a coronavirus incubator, there are rules that are not enforced, no one restricts it and no one has even tried to restrict it.”
No outbreaks have so far been traced back to the protests.
“These demonstrations are fueled by a media mobilization, the likes of which I don’t remember before,” the premier declared. “They are encouraged, allowed to paralyze neighborhoods and block roads, in stark contrast to everything that was accepted in the past.”
The prime minister continued his protest of media coverage of the events, saying: “I condemn the one-sidedness of most media outlets. They do not report the demonstrations — they participate in them. They add fuel.
“There has never been such a distorted mobilization — I wanted to say Soviet but it has already reached North Korean terms — of the media in favor of the protests,” he said.
Netanyahu said the media ignored “wild and unfettered incitement, including daily calls — including the day before yesterday — to murder the prime minister and his family.”
Gantz, who also serves as alternate prime minister, responded to Netanyahu at the meeting emphasizing his belief that the right to demonstrate is the “lifeblood of democracy” and condemning violence against protesters.
“As a government, we have a responsibility to allow the demonstrations to take place and to protect the demonstrators, who were unfortunately attacked yesterday.”
Gantz said he discussed the issue with Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, adding that he reiterates his call “for everyone to refrain from violence, and for the Israel Police to act with the minimum force necessary to maintain the law.”
The latest Jerusalem rally on Saturday night drew some 10,000 participants, according to estimates. It was by and large peaceful. Five people were taken into custody for allegedly accosting those protesting against Netanyahu and 12 people were detained at the end of a protest after police said they refused to vacate the area.
Protesters have for weeks been holding regular rallies outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, as well as in Tel Aviv and other areas, calling on the premier to resign due to his indictment on corruption charges. They have been joined in recent weeks by people protesting the government’s economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic, with crowds in the thousands and rising.
Netanyahu has protested media coverage of the protests, which he claims blows them out of proportion. On Saturday night, he again lashed out at TV news stations, as his Likud party accused the major networks channels 12 and 13 of “delivering propaganda for the anarchist left wing demonstrations.”
“They are desperately trying to brainwash the public, in order to bring down a strong prime minister from the right,” Likud wrote in a post retweeted by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu further accused the media of “ignoring the violent nature of the protests and the calls within them to murder the prime minister and his family.”
The premier is on trial for a series of cases in which he allegedly received lavish gifts from billionaire friends and traded regulatory favors with media moguls for more favorable coverage of himself and his family. He has denied any wrongdoing, accusing the media and law enforcement of a witch hunt to oust him from office.
Also Sunday, Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay of Gantz’s Blue and White party called on Netanyahu to publicly calm the tensions.
“The prime minister must take responsibility and calm things down,” Shay told the Ynet news site. “I do not know where this is going, but it is clear that the public is showing its heart. We’ve insisted on the ability of the Israeli public to demonstrate [despite the coronavirus pandemic], that the basic democratic right should be in every law and regulation. Some are against us, and we respect that.”
An estimated 10,000 people packed Jerusalem’s Paris Square Saturday night to call for Netanyahu’s resignation, in the largest-yet rally by a burgeoning anti-government movement that has brought activists, many of them young and newly politically active, to the streets.
Tensions were especially high after a number of earlier protests saw attacks by suspected assailants against protesters.
Police allowed the protesters to remain in the square until around 1 a.m. but, once most people had left on their own, began calling for the remaining group to leave. Eventually officers were deployed to physically remove the remaining core of demonstrators and 12 people were detained or arrested, police said.
Another protest was held outside Netanyahu’s private home in the coastal town of Caesarea, while thousands waved flags and chanted against the premier on bridges and highway overpasses across the country.
Hundreds also gathered at Charles Clore park in Tel Aviv to protest the government’s economic policies during the coronavirus pandemic.
The demonstrators dispersed from each of those rallies without major police intervention.
Agencies contributed to this report.