‘Netanyahu Jumped at Any Mention of Protests’: How Demos Were Neutered in Lockdown Talks

Gantz’s party gave in, professionals were sidelined; participants say the topic of protests – not public health – were at center of cabinet talks

A protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, September 24, 2020
A protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, September 24, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwingenberg

The decision to impose a full lockdown and limit public protests in Israel starting Friday goes against the position of medical professionals in the Health Ministry, and was preceded by two days of clashes and bickering in the coronavirus cabinet and the government.

For two days, members of the coronavirus cabinet and the entire cabinet butted heads over plans for a tighter lockdown in Israel amid the spike in coronavirus cases. Apart from the plan approved by the cabinet early Thursday that allows group worship and shuts down many places of employment, some ministers said they had the impression that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was primarily determined to stop the wave of demonstrations against him.

LISTEN: How COVID killed Bibi’s legacy and resurrected his archrivalCredit: Haaretz

“It was as if Netanyahu didn’t touch the matter during the meeting, but it was clear that this was his motivation,” one of the ministers told Haaretz. “He pinned it all on the excuse of the high incidence of infection, but it was clear that his personal desire to eliminate the protests was in the background. Any time anyone said the word ‘protest’ at the meeting, he jumped.”

Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen of Kahol Lavan went head-to-head with the prime minister during the deliberations. “The protests are against us, against the government. We can’t touch the issue or deal with it. We need to allow the professionals [to decide],” she said.

Netanyahu adamantly disagreed. “The protests have also been directed against the attorney general and at the level of the professionals,” he insisted, and placed the blame for the jump in the number of coronavirus cases in recent months on the protesters.

“What loosened all the public’s discipline? The protests. They attacked the police. They spit at them,” he said. “The cabinet is fully within its rights to deal with this.”

Netanyahu took the Kahol Lavan cabinet members to task. “The recommendation of all the professionals was to halt all [public] gatherings,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “I fully support the right to demonstrate, but every week Israeli citizens see how they are being required to celebrate the holiday alone and to comply with the health regulations, while on the other hand, protesters gather in their masses in violation of all the health rules.”

“The suicide by Kahol Lavan members over holding the demonstrations is simply incomprehensible,” Netanyahu’s party colleague Intelligence Affairs Minister Eli Cohen quipped. “Does hatred for Netanyahu take precedence for them over the desire to protect Israeli citizens’ lives?”

Netanyahu failed in his efforts to put a total halt for the next two weeks to the regular protests against him. The largest of the demonstrations over the past two months have been in Paris Square, opposite his official residence in Jerusalem.

A team of professionals was convened at the request of Foreign Minister Gaby Ashkenazi (Kahol Lavan) with representation from the justice and health ministries and the police. The team developed a plan overnight between Wednesday and Thursday that permits 2,000 protesters to demonstrate in Paris Square. The plan calls for the demonstrators to be divided into separate pods of 20 people each.

A source involved in the drafting of the plan said Netanyahu nearly scuttled it. “This morning,” after the team finished its work on the plan, Netanyahu “came into the discussion with the idea of having a total lockdown. The plan the professionals had drawn up was trampled on.” After additional negotiations, however, it was revived.

Kahol Lavan members had a hard time deciding over the past few days whether to support limitations on the demonstrations or whether to do battle over the right to protest. In the end, the party decided to support applying the lockdown to the protests on the condition that a total lockdown be imposed that would also apply to businesses and synagogues.

Initially Netanyahu had considered supporting a proposal by Finance Minister Yisrael Katz that would have permitted a relatively wide range of economic activity to continue to function. But Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn (Kahol Lavan) exploded at the suggestion, and insisted that if employees would be permitted to go to work and worshippers to synagogue, Kahol Lavan would not countenance infringing on the right to protesting outdoors.

“If the professionals are permitting public gatherings in open spaces and there’s no total lockdown, then we cannot prevent either demonstrations or worship,” he argued.

For his part, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit concurred that protests could not be prevented in the absence of a total lockdown. Following the confrontation over the issue, Netanyahu again expressed support for a nearly complete shutdown of economic activity.

Kahol Lavan was unable to gain support for all of the conditions that it was demanding and ultimately agreed that synagogues would remain open on Yom Kippur, which begins on Sunday evening. “To protect the public’s health, it is preferable to have people pray out in the open rather than indoors,” Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir (Kahol Lavan), argued, but he was unsuccessful in persuading Netanyahu to change his mind.

According to a source who attended some of tha talks, the power of the ultra-Orthodox parties and particularly of Interior Minister Arye Dery of Shas were also greater than Kahol Lavan’s. “The ministers surrendered to Dery,” he said.

Kahol Lavan’s shift

A Kahol Lavan source said the coronavirus cabinet had raised two options for restricting the protests. One option was to amend the law to bar protesters from venturing beyond the 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) radius to which Israelis are generally limited during the lockdown, other than for essential purposes that are spelled out.

The other was to declare a national state of emergency, which would have left it up to the police and to Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to restrict protests to protect public safety.

“There was a consensus that it wouldn’t be possible to enforce distance regulations at protests, and between the option of amending the law or leaving the matter almost entirely in Ohana’s hands, we preferred the first option,” the source said.

Within three days, Kahol Lavan members relented, backtracking from their insistence on wider protests opposite the Prime Minister’s Residence and instead supporting expedited legislation dramatically curbing the right to protest in Israel.

At a cabinet meeting on Monday, the leader of Kahol Lavan, Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, had been insisting on a broad right to protest based on existing law, which already allows conditions to be imposed to safeguard public safety and health.

“The right to protest is a basic right, and we have an obligation to protect it, like the right to worship,” Gantz said then. “The protests at Balfour [the Prime Minister’s Residence] can and should to be held in the context of the law.”

In the final round of debates, however, when it was clear that Netanyahu was insisting on significant curbs on the protests against him, Gantz became less categorical and shifted to a more vague message about the need to prevent the spread of the virus.

“[You need to] insist on what’s good for the citizens, for their health and halting the disease by balancing components involving Judaism, democracy, the economy and society,” he told Kahol Lavan’s cabinet ministers. “Don’t focus only on the issue of the protests. You need to stop the disproportionate discussion of the protests, immediately,” he said.

The decision to support limits on the protests was preceded by an internal party debate in which some Kahol Lavan lawmakers warned about damaging the party’s electoral base while others supported the need to limit public gatherings. This two-sided position characterized Kahol Lavan’s stance at the cabinet debates as well.

A party source confirmed on Wednesday that the party had decided to support imposing a full lockdown that would also bar mass protests. The party’s support for suspending the protests would be conditioned, the source said, on a simultaneous suspension of activity at synagogues.

But the terms demanded by Kahol Lavan weren’t ultimately agreed upon. Jerusalem and Heritage Affairs Minister Rafi Peretz was telling the cabinet that synagogues had to remain open. (The plan permits limited prayer indoors only on Yom Kippur).

“The synagogue plan is a balanced one. The recommendation is to pray outside in any event, even if there’s permission to hold limited prayer indoors on Yom Kippur,” he said.

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