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Netanyahu speaks out against escalating anti-government protests: ‘We won’t accept violence in Huwara or in Tel Aviv’

The Israeli premier’s comparison of judicial reform protesters to violent Jewish settlers criticized; former Defense Minister Gantz, Likud party members issue joint call for dialogue

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the nation after a day of violence anti-governments protests, Mar. 1, 2023. (Photo: Screenshot)

After weeks of mass protests that turned violent on Wednesday, some members of the Israeli government and the opposition called to begin a dialogue over the proposed legal reforms of Israel’s justice system. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a televised statement from Jerusalem Wednesday evening, expressing hope that the sides “can find room for dialogue and compromise.” 

However, Netanyahu’s remarks mainly addressed the widespread anti-government protests that began earlier in the day. 

“Citizens of Israel, the right to demonstrate is a basic value of democracy. But the freedom to demonstrate is not freedom to bring the country to a standstill,” Netanyahu said. “Freedom to demonstrate is not a license to degrade the country into anarchy, into chaos. A sovereign nation cannot tolerate anarchy.”  

The large-scale demonstrations kicked off in the morning hours in what was called “national disruption day.” 

The protests later escalated, becoming aggressive as crowds blocked major roads and stopped the traffic on a major highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. 

The Israeli police reportedly used stun grenades and water cannons to disperse the crowds. According to local authorities, 37 people were detained and 11 people were lightly injured, including some police officers with two evacuated to hospitals. 

Netanyahu has faced criticism for drawing parallels between the anti-government protesters and certain Jewish settlers who escalated a Sunday protest against the murders of two Israeli brothers in the Palestinian Arab town of Huwara, by rioting and burning property. 

“We won’t accept violence in Huwara and we won’t accept violence in Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said. “I know there are among you people who love the country, who support and accept the judicial reform. And I know there are others among you who also love the country and who oppose the reforms. But in a democracy, there are clear guidelines on how to conduct the disagreement.”

Netanyahu stressed that, in 2005, opponents of the disengagement of Israelis from the Gaza Strip – who were expelled from their homes – did not behave in the same way. 

“There are red lines that are forbidden to cross, and it doesn’t matter how deep the disagreement, how stormy, how much it enrages someone. The red line that cannot be crossed, that is utterly forbidden, is violence and anarchy,” the Israeli premier said. 

The prime minister’s comments came after members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Benny Gantz, the leader of the National Unity opposition party, put forward a statement urging all sides to convene for discussion to try reach a broad compromise. 

“The State of Israel is currently facing many complex challenges in the fields of society, the economy and its international status and is facing serious attacks and security challenges more serious than ever before,” read the statement. “Above all of these hovers, like a dark shadow, the difficult controversy that tears and divides the public in Israel regarding the various proposals concerning the Israeli justice system. We have no doubt that although the disputes are difficult, we must act in every way to reach broad agreements.” 

Gantz praised the bipartisan effort on social media, saying: “I welcome the important initiative of my friends from the National Unity, Knesset members Gadi Eisenkot and Hili Trooper, together with Knesset members Danon and Edelstein, to hold joint talks within the framework of the President’s outline.”

Last month, Israeli President Isaac Herzog introduced a five-point plan as a basis for a compromise. He requested that no reforms undergo a first reading until there is broad agreement on how to proceed and put an end to the impasse.

Earlier in the day, Herzog said the State of Israel and the Israeli public are facing dire times in light of an “internal, deep and serious crisis.”

“It threatens Israel’s internal resilience and solidarity, and it is very dangerous,” Herzog continued, speaking at a graduation ceremony of the Israel Defense Forces’ naval officers’ course. 

In his speech, the Israeli president referred to the mass protests that took place throughout the day against the government’s judicial reforms.

“I see the protest, the anxiety and the fear that comes from the depths of your hearts – a fear that I also expressed regarding the legislation as it is being presented now. I feel very well the depth of pain and the depth of concern for the fate of the country,” Herzog said.

“I will not let our state reach the point of no return, I will not let this historical disaster happen,” Herzog stressed. “I will never give up any part of Israeli society. Nor will I ever give up the chance to reach a broad consensus.”

”I believe that it is possible to turn the burning ground under our feet into a fertile soil ripe for agreements – which will bring stability to the State of Israel for years and generations, and will reflect in the deepest way the democratic and Jewish principles of our country,” he added.  

In recent weeks, the Israeli president has tried to facilitate talks between the coalition and the opposition in an attempt to advance a compromise. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken commended his efforts when he visited Israel in late January. 

Given the unfolding political crisis, Herzog recently canceled an official visit to Japan that was scheduled for mid-March. 

The legislation promoted by Netanyahu’s government seeks to curb the authority of Israel’s High Court of Justice by limiting its power to overturn parliamentary decisions. It also calls to change the system by which Supreme Court justices are nominated and approved. 

While supporters of the reforms believe they will fix an “overreaching” and “interventionist” judiciary branch, opponents fear they will harm the country’s democratic values and put minority rights at risk.  

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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