Tens of Thousands of Israelis Protest Netanyahu's Immunity Bills in Opposition's First Rally

Protesters wore Ottoman-style fezzes and carried portraits of Turkish President Erdogan, symbolizing 'the regime type that we are opposing'

Protesters in Tel Aviv, May 25, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

Tens of thousands of people gathered outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for the Israeli opposition's first rally since the April 9 election, in a "pro-democracy" protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to pass legislation that would curb the powers of the High Court.

Addressing the crowd, Kahol Lavan co-chair Benny Gantz said this was the first protest he's even been to because as the former chief of the Israeli army he could not attend politically-oriented events.

>> Read more: It's time to take to the streets | Haaretz Editorial

"Israel is the fulfillment of a dream but I'm here to say loud and clear what we all feel, that the dream is falling apart. There are those who are attempting to replace the people's rule with the rule of a single man and to enslave an entire nation to the interests of one man," Gantz said.

Protesters wore Ottoman-style red fezzes and carrying portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and signs that read: "Erdogan is already here."

One of the protesters explained that "the fez symbolizes the regime type that we are opposing, where everything is controlled by one person and people are afraid to express their opinions. That's where we're headed."

"We will not be silent, we will not surrender to hate, we will not surrender to incitement," Gantz added. "We will not let Israel become the private mansion of a Sultan or a royal family."

The demonstration is seen as the first public test of Gantz's ability to lead the opposition.

Kahol LavanLabor and Meretz organized the protest, but the Arab parties were not invited. Several hours before the protest and following public pressure, Gantz invited Arab Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, the chairman of Hadash, to speak.

"I am here today because I believe in Jewish-Arab partnership and believe it is the only way for hope in this country," Odeh told protesters. "Arab citizens alone cannot do it, but without us it is also impossible. I am here today because I believe that without equality there is no democracy," he said.

Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg told protesters that "there is no king in Israel, we are the state, not Netanyahu."

"This is personal," she said, "it's personal for every man and woman who had to go to court to ask to become parents... it's personal for Palestinians who had their land stolen because the government passed a law saying it's allowed. It's personal for women who want to get on a bus and are told to use the back door." She added that all the rights protecting these people "were achieved thanks to the courts, not the Knesset."

"The youth will pay the economic price of the loss of democracy," Labor chair Avi Gabbay told the crowd. 

Kahol Lavan co-chair Yair Lapid, speaking to Netanyahu, said: "We will not let you be Erdogan, we will not have a Turkish dictator here, we will not let you destroy the country!"

Lapid added: "What does he think, that we'll sit here quietly? That he'll destroy the courts and we'll be silent? We're here because we're angry!"

Following the protest, Likud said in a statement: "This evening, at the left-wing protest in Tel Aviv – terror supporters Ayman Odeh is speaking with the blessing of Lapid and Gantz, and the released prisoner Ehud Olmert is demonstrating 'against corruption.' What a joke."

The Arab party United Arab List-Balad was not invited to participate in the rally. Party leader Mansour Abbas said "the organizers of the 'democracy' rally ignored the representatives of the Arab community so I will not participate in the protest." He added that he would have agreed to participate in the demonstration had he been asked, but the party wasn’t invited to join the rally and will not be taking part in it. 

On Thursday, Haaretz reported that Odeh had originally been invited to speak but that when accepted the invitation, he was told that the list of speakers was already closed and there was no room for additional speakers.

"The struggle against Netanyahu's attempts to destroy the democratic space is a joint struggle that all democratic forces share," Odeh wrote in a post on his official Twitter handle. "We won't have an alternative for a corrupt and destructive regime without a broad cooperation by all citizens, Jews and Arabs. Only thus will we be able to replace the regime, only thus will we be able to pose an alternative to his destructive policy."

Zandberg tweeted that "there is no democracy without equality and the struggle for democracy cannot be for Jews only." 

Labor's Shelly Yacimovich tweeted that "a protest without Arabs is surrender to racism and to the incitement from the right."