Netanyahu Calls to Curb Protests Against Him Under Coronavirus Restrictions

As coronavirus cabinet mulls intensifying lockdown restrictions, protests and prayer services become a central point of contention

Jonathan Lis
Ido Efrati
Noa Landau
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Shaare Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem, August 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Shaare Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Jonathan Lis
Ido Efrati
Noa Landau

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the "farce" of anti-government protests calling for his resignation must be curbed under the coronavirus restrictions.

Israel's coronavirus cabinet met Tuesday to discuss intensifying lockdown restrictions amid a spike in infections and mortality and the increasing burden on hospitals.

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Discussions were adjourned without a decision. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi offered to hold a meeting on Tuesday evening with representatives of the Attorney General, the police and the Health Ministry to clarify restrictions on prayers and protests. Their recommendations will be heard when the cabinet reconvenes on Wednesday morning at 11:30 A.M. Israel time (4:30 A.M. EDT).

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"For a long time I've avoided weighing in on the matter, but after I've heard experts claiming that gatherings are a huge threat to public health, it is my obligation to speak about it. The entire public is obligated to abide by the regulations and only a group of protesters is exempt," Netanyahu said. "You can only visit the Western Wall if you live within a kilometer of it, but people can come to Balfour from all over the country. At the Western Wall people can only pray in groups of twenty, but at the protests everything is permitted. This farce must stop!"

"There must be one law for prayers and protests and all forms of gatherings. Otherwise the public won't listen to the guidelines and the rate of infection will soar to threatening proportions," Netanyahu said.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Kahol Lavan said, “We must adjust the protests to the demands of the lockdown. But restrictions must be decided by experts and not by the politicians who are the subject of the protests."

"We will support giving police the authority to enforce the restrictions at the protests.” Nissenkorn added, “however, in a democratic country governments do not forbid protests against them.”

Netanyahu supporters have not been the only ones calling for protesters to stay home however. Ofer Shelah, a veteran member of opposition party Yesh Atid, who is currently staging a bid for its leadership, called on those hoping to unseat Netanyahu to "stop until the end of the lockdown, continue in other ways."

"There is nothing more just than a protest against a corrupt and failed prime minister. And there is nothing more justified than stopping the mass demonstrations against him at this critical moment," Shelah said on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon.

Police officers take away a protester during a demonstration asking for Netanyahu's resignation taking place in Jerusalem, despite a second coronavirus lockdown, September 20, 2020.
Police officers take away a protester during a demonstration asking for Netanyahu's resignation taking place in Jerusalem, despite a second coronavirus lockdown, September 20, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

COVID-19 czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu presented cabinet ministers with his plan to reduce prayer activity in synagogues after an assessment by health professionals.

Gamzu's plan drew ire from Interior Minister Arye Dery, who chairs the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. "I cannot understand why demonstrations are a yes and prayers are a no," Dery said. "Prayer is important not only for the ultra-Orthodox, but also for the religious, the conservatives and the secular. It is a sacred value," Dery said. 

Dery threatened to resign over the matter. “We live in a Jewish and democratic state. From my perspective it is a Jewish state first and foremost. If we cannot hold prayers in synagogues and the protests continue, I don’t think we’re talking about a Jewish state anymore and I cannot stay at my post,” Dery said.

The Black Flag movement, which is among the organizers of the anti-Netanyahu protests, also said last week that its activists would stop attending the protests in Jerusalem, and instead focus on coming out in multiple locations throughout the country. But it blasted the prime minister's remarks on Tuesday evening: “The destroyer of the country Netanyahu is the reason that Israel is under lockdown. He’s busy with silly flights and managing his trial and not with the coronavirus!"

"This is an order, for everyone who wants to save the nation," the statement added. "Come to the bridges, intersections, and in convoys on Thursday and Saturday in order to fight the defendant who is destroying the nation.”

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