Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son sparked a firestorm of criticism Thursday by appearing to wish that left-wing Israelis die of the coronavirus.
Yair Netanyahu, an arch-conservative who has become known for his brash and often off-color social media trolling, was responding to a demonstration held in Tel Aviv Thursday where some 2,000 people protested what they described as the erosion of Israeli democracy under Benjamin Netanyahu’s stewardship of the coronavirus crisis.
Nitzan Horowitz, the leader of the far-left Meretz party, tweeted a picture of himself standing among the socially distanced crowd wearing a face mask, leading the younger Netanyahu to accuse him of endangering public health.
“I hope the elderly who die following this protest will only be from your camp,” Netanyahu wrote.
הפגנה חזקה מאוד עכשיו בככר הבימה.
נאבקים על הדמוקרטיה. pic.twitter.com/4sz8OoZ8yS
— Nitzan Horowitz نيتسان هوروفيتس ניצן הורוביץ (@NitzanHorowitz) April 16, 2020
He later added that he believed the protest was a form of mass gathering that would help the deadly coronavirus spread.
“So statistically, there is a good chance that the left-wing protesters tonight caused the future deaths of elderly people. I prefer them not to be ours,” he wrote.
Protests are one of the few public activities allowed under Israel’s strict lockdown rules meant to stem the spread of the virus. Demonstrators on the right and left have both regularly held rallies, including in support of Netanyahu, though the Thursday protest was significantly larger than earlier demonstrations.
Netanyahu’s comments drew immediate and vociferous rebuke, including from his father, whose office released a statement saying that he “roundly rejects the remarks.”
“There are no [political] camps in the struggle against the coronavirus, and there shouldn’t be,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Horowitz also spoke out against the younger Netanyahu, saying that the comments had “disgusted” him.
“The incitement and wishes of death upon people from the rival political camp are sickening and just emphasize the importance of our struggle against corruption and for democracy to be strengthened,” he stated.
Yair Netanyahu later deleted the tweet, though he continued to post messages defending himself, including one calling journalists “idiots,” and another saying that former Mossad deputy head and current Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak was “a clown” and too dumb to know how to speak English.
Netanyahu is no stranger to controversy due to his aggressive posts online, in which he appears to relish playing the part of the salty-tongued villain. In 2017, he drew international condemnation after posting a cartoon attacking critics of his parents — one that at the same time appeared to adopt anti-Semitic themes.
Months later, he was temporarily banned from Facebook over a number of posts, which were also removed from his account, tarring all Muslims as terrorists and urging they be forcibly departed from Israel.
He has also used social media to call a police chief autistic, and to accuse the president and Knesset speaker of plotting a coup, and has become embroiled in a number of libel suits, both as defendant and complainant.
Last month, a judge ordered Netanyahu to pay NIS 250,000 ($72,425) after failing to respond to a libel suit brought against him by a former Walla news site editor over a retweet with an incendiary allegation.
Despite Netanyahu’s allegation, the demonstrators at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square Thursday said they were keeping two meters’ distance between one another in accordance with social distancing rules.
Waving black flags, protesters demonstrated against Netanyahu and what they saw as a trampling of norms by the caretaker government under cover of the health emergency.
“The citizens of Israel are proving today that Israeli democracy refuses to be subjected to a coup under the pretext of the coronavirus,” an organizer said.
The “black flag” movement’s name has come from demonstrators pinning black flags to their vehicles to symbolize what they believe is a danger to Israel’s democracy posed by Netanyahu’s continued rule.
The demonstrators have often kept to their cars in order to uphold social distancing directives aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
On Monday, dozens of black flag protesters demonstrated next to the home of Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi, due to party leader Benny Gantz’s willingness to form a unity government and serve under Netanyahu. The protest leaders said police handed five of them fines for refusing to disperse the “banned gathering.”
They said the fines ranged from NIS 475 to 5,000 ($133-1,400) and vowed not to pay them, accusing police of trying to “suppress the protest with huge fines.”
Ashkenazi himself later urged authorities to consider canceling the police fines.
“Even during these days, we must guarantee freedom of speech and the right to protest, provided that the protesters adhere to the Health Ministry guidelines,” he said in a tweet.