Speakers and attendees at a mass rally Saturday night against the reelection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Israelis to vote in new leadership in the March 17 election.
The star of the rally was keynote speaker Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad and a vocal critic of Netanyahu.
“Israel is a nation surrounded by enemies, but I am not afraid of enemies,” Dagan said.
“I am frightened by our leadership. I am afraid because of the lack of vision and loss of direction. I am frightened by the hesitation and the stagnation. And I am frightened, above all else, from a crisis in leadership. It is the worst crisis that Israel has seen to this day.”
Dagan’s speech came the day after Channel 2 aired an interview with the former spy chief in which he leveled scathing criticism at Netanyahu. In the interview, Dagan can be heard saying “bullshit” while watching Netanyahu tell the US Congress last week that Iran could sprint to a nuclear device in less than a year. Dagan said the assessment is inaccurate and also ridiculed the prime minister’s assertion that Iran has missiles that could hit the US.
Dagan also said Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress was “a political speech that caused diplomatic and defense damage to Israel,” and while an Iranian nuke is an “almost intolerable threat” to Israel, the way Netanyahu has handled the issue has hurt efforts to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear armament program.
Tens of thousands attended the rally, which was held under the title “Israel wants change.”
The Facebook page for the event said “Netanyahu’s leadership has failed. After being in power for six years and heading two governments, the situation has only become more difficult for Israelis: the cost of living has gone up, there is a real estate crisis, there is no security, no peace, no hope.”
The rally was organized by the group “Million Hands,” which, according to its website, is devoted to the two-state solution and made up of “a number of Israeli citizens who see the need to separate from the Palestinians through establishing clear borders – a necessary step in ensuring the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Hillel Fertouk, a spokesman for the demonstration, said it was a “political, nonpartisan rally.” He said no political parties were behind its organization, and its message is meant to support “the Center and the Left” and “to shift the priorities of Israel towards investing in education, health, public housing, the cost of living, helping the elderly and the periphery, and finding a political solution to the conflict.”
Partisan or not, supporters of the Meretz party and the Zionist Union were out in force, and placards for Peace Now dotted the crowd.
Above all, the message from the attendees was: Netanyahu must go.
Ohad and Hagar, a couple in their 30s from Tel Aviv carrying a young infant, said they came because of the need to send the prime minister packing, since “over the past six years he’s failed in every field – in security, economy, social issues and in diplomacy.”
Though the election campaigns have focused mainly on social issues, Maj.-Gen.
(res.) Amiram Levine, the former OC Northern Command and former deputy head of the Mossad, focused on diplomatic and security issues in his speech at the rally, like his former comrade Dagan.
“I have felt that Israel is losing its way and we are on the path to disaster,” Levine said, adding that he believes Netanyahu and others are leading Israel to a binational or apartheid state.
“If we continue to hold on to the dream of a great Israel and control another people,” he said, “we will lose all of Israel.” He said the IDF cannot continue to occupy another people, because it is a recipe for failure.
Earlier in the rally the crowd heard from Michal Kesten-Keidar, whose husband, Lt.-Col. Dolev Keidar, was the commander of the Geffen Battalion when he was killed in combat in July during a Hamas tunnel infiltration in Operation Protective Edge.
She also sounded the alarm about the need for a political settlement with the Palestinians and the Arab world.
“I would give everything to prevent the last war from happening,” she said. “That I cannot do, but I am asking you, for our children, we deserve hope, we deserve a different, better life. Do whatever you can to prevent the next war.”
A number of speakers also addressed social issues, included activists representing recent workers’ rights struggles, the social justice protests since the summer of 2011, and those calling for more investment in public housing.
An impassioned speech was given by Rami Ibrahim, a Druse officer in the IDF.
“Just like the Jews, the Druse don’t have another country,” he said, adding that the Druse suffer from terrible inequality in the allocation of social services.
Throughout the protest – which was significantly more raucous before Dagan and Levine finished their speeches – shouts of “revolution” and “Bibi go home” could be heard, as well as occasional chants backing Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog.
Wearing a Zionist Union sticker on his shirt, 74-year-old Tel Avivian Eli Cohen said he worried mainly about the anti-democratic trends in Israeli life under the Netanyahu government, and what the future holds for Israeli society.
“My father came to Israel at the turn of the century,” Cohen said.
“He is terrified of where this country is going.”
In response, the Likud said the rally was part of an organized campaign by the Left funded by millions of dollars from abroad that is intended to replace Netanyahu with a left-wing government led by Zionist Union leaders Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
The party said it is “strange that Dagan says now that he does not believe in the current leadership after he himself asked to have his term as Mossad chief extended by Netanyahu.”
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) also blasted Dagan, noting that his attacks on Netanyahu have been featured on state-run television in Iran.
“The irresponsible blabbing of Dagan caused great harm to the security of the state,” Levin said.
“Dagan is acting out of clear political motives. His hatred for the prime minister has blinded him long ago from seeing reality.”
Levin said he hoped someone who once held a sensitive post would “restrain himself and not use his past to harm the future of all Israeli citizens.”Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.