Netanyahu tells ministers: ‘Punch back’ at protester lies like we hit out at terror

PM compares demonstrators to those who protested his 2015 natural gas deal, seemingly equates their ‘lies’ to Palestinian terrorism; his office says he was speaking figuratively

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, January 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday he wanted to “punch back” at protesters against the government and “hit out against the lies” he claimed were being told against his coalition’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, while seemingly comparing such alleged lies to Palestinian terrorism.

Comparing the protesters to those who demonstrated against a controversial natural gas deal he led in 2015, Netanyahu told ministerial colleagues that the deal had been a great success, before adding: “I want you to be equipped with these things and simply punch back. It’s not just hitting out against terror, [we need to] hit out against the lies.”

The quote was provided by the Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday night, a day after Channel 12 news reported on his comments while providing a different — apparently inaccurate — version of the quote, in which Netanyahu was cited as saying: “I want to give you a fist to strike them with… The same people who protested against the gas agreement or the coronavirus vaccines are the same people protesting today… Just like they said then that the gas deal would cause damage, they also say today that’s what the reform will do. We must strike down the lie.”

It was not clear whether the prime minister had indeed compared the protesters to anti-vaxxers. The PMO transcript did not mention them, but only provided a single, limited quote.

Netanyahu’s office stressed he had been speaking figuratively.

“When the prime minister used the word ‘strike,’ he meant to strike at the untrue arguments of those who spread panic, and not to physically strike anyone,” the PMO said.

The initial Friday report outraged protest leaders, who accused the premier of using inciting language that could lead to violence against demonstrators.

The coalition’s plans to severely weaken the judiciary have sparked mass protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and smaller rallies around the country. Tens of thousands protested outside the Knesset on Monday as the government held a first vote on a key piece of legislation in the plan. Other rallies have drawn close to 100,000 demonstrators.

Israelis protest against government plans to overhaul the judicial system outside the Knesset, with the Bank of Israel headquarters seen in the background, February 20, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Since being sworn in less than two months ago, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has prioritized the proposals, which are being spearheaded by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman, the head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

The sweeping reforms, which have been bulldozed through the Knesset in recent weeks include the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges to the High Court, all but eliminating the court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.

Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the coalition and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and dire warnings from security officials, foreign allies, leading financial and legal experts, and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies.

Top economic figures have repeatedly warned the overhaul will cause severe damage to the economy. After the Knesset passed initial votes on the legislation on Tuesday, marking the first significant steps in its divisive effort, the shekel depreciated to the weakest level in three years against the US dollar and Tel Aviv shares declined.

Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism and brushed the predictions aside, saying the proposals will strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.

Several recent polls have indicated the overhaul plans are broadly unpopular with the public, and that the coalition has lost the support of swaths of voters since taking office.

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