There was a growing outcry on Monday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused protesters against the judicial overhaul of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities against him abroad, which he framed as being against Israel rather than against the actions of his hardline government. Some coalition members issued statements against the demonstrators that echoed the premier’s sentiment.
Netanyahu made the contentious comments as he departed for a trip to the United States. Protesters against the coalition’s attempts to curb the judiciary’s oversight powers have vowed to hound Netanyahu on his travels and during his scheduled meetings.
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, while he speaks to the UN on Friday, at the same time as protests by pro-PLO and pro-BDS activists.
The statement made no reference to the fact that Netanyahu had also linked the protesters to Iran.
The clarification came after Opposition Leader Yair Lapid slammed Netanyahu’s comments, saying it was the actions of the 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,” the Yesh Atid leader said. “Nothing helps the Iranians more than the [judicial] ‘coup d’état’ of his government. His accusations against the patriots of the protest is more proof of a serious disruption to his judgment and understanding of reality.”
National Unity leader Benny Gantz said the premier was causing “tremendous damage” to the country, and no amount of speeches at the United Nations would be able to repair it.
“Netanyahu’s attack, accusing the protesters in the US of colluding with our enemies, is grave and worthy of all condemnation,” Gantz said.
“Even if we disagree on a course of action, we are talking about patriots, lovers of the country. Even a thousand fiery speeches at the United Nations will not repair the tremendous damage that Netanyahu is causing to Israeli society with his conduct. It’s time to stop the ‘coup d’état’ and bring order to the government, instead of blaming the protesters,” he said.
Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman attacked the premier for “shameless lies.”
“The friend of Iran and the PLO is none other than you yourself, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu. You are the one who is dismantling Israeli society from within, you are the one who proves to all of us every day that you act solely in accordance with your personal interests, even if it means that the country will burn down,” Liberman said.
Labor party leader Merav Michaeli drew a parallel between Netanyahu’s comments and past accusations that he encouraged incitement that led to the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, or at least contributed to the incendiary political climate in the run-up to the murder. Netanyahu has rejected such claims.
“Netanyahu has built his entire political career on incitement and bloodletting — he did it to Rabin and now he is doing it to the protesters in Kaplan,” Michaeli said, referring to the street where weekly anti-overhaul protests are held in Tel Aviv. “It’s time to stop being shocked by the lies and poison this man sows, and demonstrate with all our might to send him home.”
National Unity MK Gadi Eisenkot said that the premier’s comments were “off the rails.”
“I hope he will retract and come to his senses,” Eisenkot told Army Radio.
Netanyahu made his contentious comments about the protesters ahead of boarding his flight.
The premier’s departure was met with a protest of several hundreds of people at Ben Gurion International Airport.
“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, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu was 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.”
Mass protesters are also set to greet Netanyahu, over the course of his US visit with a first stop in San Jose, California, and then New York.
On Sunday evening, protesters from the UnXeptable activist group projected “Welcome to Alcatraz Bibi” and “Netanyahu is a dictator on the run,” with an image showing Netanyahu in inmate’s uniform, onto the wall of the infamous California jail ahead of the premier’s arrival on the West Coast.
— נריה קראוס Neria Kraus (@NeriaKraus) September 18, 2023
In addition, “Save our Start-Up Nation” was projected onto a number of key buildings in San Francisco.
לקראת הנחיתה המיועדת של נתניהו ופמלייתו בסן חוזה, פעילי המחאה העולמית UnXeptable ארגנו לנתניהו קבלת פנים בלתי נשכחת ומזכירים לעולם במי מדובר- ראש ממשלה נאשם בפלילים שפועל להפוך את ישראל לדיקטטורה. במבצע לילי המפגינים מקרינים על אתרים מוכרים בעיר את המסר של מחאת ההייטק, המכוון… pic.twitter.com/LKJ3jeJc5p
— מחאת ההייטקיסטים (@democratechil) September 18, 2023
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich claimed that the protesters abroad against the judicial overhaul are “[Boycott Divestment Sanctions] BDS activists who harm Israel,” and that by backing the protesters, Lapid and Gantz have “crossed all the red lines.”
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen also issued a fresh barb at anti-government demonstrators in a social media post sent as he traveled to New York.
“When we were in the opposition, we never spoke out against the State of Israel in the world,” Cohen, a member of the ruling Likud party, claimed on the X platform. “The protests against Netanyahu overseas and the defamation against him in Israel cross a red line and are illegitimate.
“It’s not surprising that this is coming from the same people who call for insubordination and taking money out of the country, and thus are acting with their own hands to harm Israel’s security and economy,” the Jewish state’s top diplomat further charged.
Transportation Minister Miri Regev of Likud, a longtime Netanyahu loyalist, also hit out at the demonstrators, accusing them of “shaming the State of Israel and harming the country’s legitimacy, citizens and democracy.
“The time has come to put an end to to this — you have lost it, the public is no longer moved,” she wrote on X. “We are building and acting for the country, while they are destroying and sowing hate.”
Likud minister May Golan upped the ante, accusing the protesters of employing “propaganda terrorism” and saying that “not only have they joined forces with enemies of Israel — they themselves are enemies of Israel.”
Coalition whip Ofir Katz of Likud tweeted that “factually, until today those who protested against representatives of the government abroad and in particular at the UN were Israel haters, in demonstrations that were accompanied by PLO flags. Now they are leading to the same result — harm to the State of Israel.”
Katz took particular umbrage at the Alcatraz protest, saying it was the act of a “few extremists” motivated by hate.
The projections were not the first time activists used the tool. Earlier this week, they 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 anti-overhaul protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people for 37 consecutive weeks, from many sectors of Israeli society including academics, business leaders, legal professionals, military and security experts, reservists, members of the security establishment, and members of the vaunted high-tech sector.
Abroad, expat activists have 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.
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 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.