Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at anti-overhaul protesters as he departed for his long-awaited US trip early Monday, including by accusing them of joining forces with Israel’s enemies such as Iran and the PLO in their activities against him abroad.
Netanyahu’s departure was met with a protest of several hundred people at Ben Gurion International Airport, with chants urging the prime minister to “go and don’t come back.”
Mass protests are also set to greet Netanyahu, whose hardline coalition is attempting to overhaul the judiciary and curb its oversight powers, over the course of his US trip this week with a first stop in San Jose, California, and then New York.
Protesters have vowed to hound Netanyahu on his travels and during his scheduled meetings.
In remarks to reporters before his departure, Netanyahu lashed out at the protesters who have kept the mass demonstrations going for over eight months, and accused them of now “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities, which he framed as being against Israel rather than against his government.
“Nothing surprises me anymore with these demonstrations,” he said, when asked by a reporter about the protests against him, including those planned in the US.
“Whoever is organizing these protests does it with a lot of money. These are organized, financially backed demonstrations. They have crossed all borders. They have made it so that blocking roads is [ostensibly] a normal thing, that violently harassing public figures is a normal thing, that refusal [to serve in the military and in the reserves] is a normal thing. And therefore, when they defame Israel before the nations of the world, it seems normal to them. I don’t regard it as normal. When I was the head of the opposition, I never did that.”
He said he was about to give his 12th speech to the UN General Assembly as prime minister, and recalled pro- and anti-Israel demonstrations over the years. “But this time, we see demonstrations against Israel by people that are joining forces with the PLO, with Iran, and with others.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” he repeated, while stressing that this would not prevent him from representing the State of Israel in the most effective way possible.
In a later statement, issued while his plane was en route to the US and amid an outcry in Israel over his comments, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu had been referring to the fact that the anti-overhaul protesters would be demonstrating in the US at the same time as pro-PLO and pro-BDS activists. The statement made no reference to the fact that Netanyahu had also linked the protesters to Iran.
“When the prime minister spoke of ‘joining forces’ he was referring to the fact that, at the time that the prime minister of Israel will be representing the State of Israel from the UN podium, Israeli citizens will be demonstrating simultaneously with PLO and BDS supporters — something that has never happened before,” the statement said. “One hopes that the Israeli demonstrators will at least take a few minutes to demonstrate against those who deny the State of Israel’s right to exist.”
Ahead of the flight, Netanyahu also told reporters he planned to emphasize in his upcoming meetings with world leaders and in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly that Iran “is breaking all of its commitments” vis-à-vis its nuclear program and “expanding its aggression in the region.”
The premier’s comments about the protests were decried by opposition politicians, who said that it was the actions of Netanyahu’s hardline government that were aiding the country’s enemies.
“There is no person who has destroyed our image in the world more than Netanyahu in recent months,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said. “Nothing helps the Iranians more than the ‘coup d’état’ of his government. His accusations against the patriots of the protest is more proof of the serious disruption to his judgment and understanding of reality.”
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said that Netanyahu was causing “tremendous damage” to Israeli society with his conduct.
“Netanyahu’s attack, accusing the protesters in the US of colluding with our enemies, is serious and worthy of all condemnation,” Gantz said in a statement.
“Even if we disagree on the course of action, we are talking about patriots, lovers of the country. Even a thousand flame-throwing speeches at the United Nations will not repair the tremendous damage that Netanyahu is causing to Israeli society through his conduct. It’s time to stop the ‘coup d’état’ and bring order to the government, instead of blaming the protesters,” he said.
The anti-overhaul protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people for 37 consecutive weeks, from all sectors of Israeli society including academics, business leaders, legal professionals, military and security experts, reservists, members of the security establishment, members of the tech sector, and many others.
On Sunday night, thousands of Israelis rallied nationwide against the judicial overhaul. The weekly protests are usually held on Saturdays but were pushed off to Sunday this week because of the two-day Rosh Hashanah holiday.
Demonstrators in Tel Aviv began the evening by staging what they called “The Victory of Democracy March” from Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard, where the establishment of Israel was declared, to the main protest site at Kaplan Street. Many demonstrators were clad in white for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, and some carried a large banner that declared: “The dictatorship will collapse.”
Others carried a large copy of the Declaration of Independence. “It’s a duty to stand up against those who scorn the Declaration of Independence and are turning Israel into a dictatorship,” the Kaplan Force protest group said in a statement.
References to the Declaration of Independence featured heavily after a lawyer representing Netanyahu’s government at a High Court of Justice hearing sparked an uproar last week when he dismissed Israel’s foundational document as a “hasty” document endorsed by unelected signatories, arguing that it cannot be a source of legal authority.
An unprecedented panel of all 15 justices presided over the highly charged session, and will issue their decision at a later date. The law is the only component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program that has been passed by the Knesset so far.
Along with the main rally in Tel Aviv on Sunday, smaller protests were held at dozens of locations around the country, including in Jerusalem, Haifa, Rehovot, Eilat, Karkur, Kiryat Tevon and elsewhere.
Abroad, expat activists have also proved to be a persistent thorn in the side of government ministers and Knesset members during recent visits to New York and other cities in the US, using a network of sympathizers to pursue the lawmakers wherever they appear.
Earlier this week, activists projected a giant message onto the UN Headquarters building in New York, saying: “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu. Protect Israeli democracy.” Activists said the message was projected onto the building for about 30 minutes.
“The slogan projected on the UN building wall is just a small taste of what is awaiting the indicted defendant Netanyahu on his visit to NYC,” the New York protesters say in a statement. “We will be waiting to greet him. In the air, on land and at sea. The whole world will know that Netanyahu is a liar. We will not allow him to disgrace Israel and deceive world leaders with his speeches.”
Netanyahu is set to meet with a host of world leaders during his six-day trip to the US, which will also feature a sit-down with billionaire Elon Musk who is facing accusations of amplifying antisemitism on his X social media platform and is embroiled in a feud with the Anti-Defamation League.
The highest-profile sit-down will be the long-awaited visit with US President Joe Biden in New York in a format that is sure to disappoint the prime minister, who has been angling for a visit to the White House since he returned to office as head of a right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition in late December. Instead, Biden has sufficed with a Netanyahu meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly. The premier is set to address the gathering of world leaders on Friday morning local time.
The Biden administration has held off on an invitation to the White House amid the massive protests and fierce opposition to the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul bid, which Washington has repeatedly warned against.
Netanyahu will also meet South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky among others.
In a press statement sent out as he departed from Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said it was “quite exciting to see the many requests for meetings” and that he “unfortunately cannot meet with all the leaders who requested, but I hope to meet with most of them.”
The premier said he will emphasize in his meetings that “Iran is breaking all of its commitments, that it is lying with determination, that it intends both to develop nuclear weapons and to continue its aggression in the region. We will fight both of these things simultaneously,” he said in the statement sent by his office.
Netanyahu also referred to a recent threat by the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps who said that should Israel threaten Iran’s security, its “life will be cut short.”
Netanyahu warned Tehran that Israel will “respond forcefully to any attack on our people and our citizens.”
Of his sit-down with Musk, the prime minister said he will be meeting with “a man who is currently leading the most dramatic development in human technology in this new age and perhaps in general.”
“I will discuss with him the subject of artificial intelligence, and I will also work for him to invest in Israel in the coming years. This man, to a large extent, paves the way that will change the face of humanity and also change the face of the State of Israel; Israel should be a leader in the subject of artificial intelligence,” he said of Musk, whose chaotic takeover of Twitter (now X) less than a year ago has been marked by multiple scandals, including accusations that he engages enthusiastically with far-right accounts and amplifies anti-Jewish tropes and various conspiracy theories.
Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” also gutted Twitter’s moderation teams and has allowed antisemitic and hateful content to spike.
In May, Israel’s Foreign Ministry accused Musk of driving up antisemitic rhetoric on X in the wake of a remark he made against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
But Netanyahu’s government quickly came to his defense, with Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli calling him an “amazing entrepreneur and a role model” and claiming that “criticism of Soros – who finances the most hostile organizations to the Jewish people and the state of Israel is anything but anti-Semitism, quite the opposite!”
Soros is a billionaire and Holocaust survivor who supports progressive causes and is a common target of antisemitic conspiracy theories.