Netanyahu: In a democracy there will be no call to civil riots

Netanyahu talked to President Herzog, stressing that just as the opposition won't be arrested, the coalition shouldn't be compared to the Nazis.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on January 8, 2023 (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on January 8, 2023
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

"In a democratic country, the leaders of the opposition are not arrested, just as the government ministers are not called Nazis, the Jewish government isn't called the Third Reich and the citizens are not called to start a civil rebellion," PM Benjamin Netanyahu told President Herzog in a call on Tuesday, Maariv reported.

The call came after an appeal by the President to politicians and citizens to calm the public discourse in the country, in a statement published on Twitter on Tuesday.

President Herzog's statement read: "The values of the Declaration of Independence are the compass of our country - I will not let anyone harm them. This is a sensitive and explosive time in the Israeli public. I am aware of the voices from both sides, of all the pain, worries and anxieties. I do not ignore this and it is on my mind constantly.

"During the last days I have been acting and discussing with many parties and I am doing everything in order to create a respectful and respecting dialogue, in the hopes of getting to a broad understanding. I appeal to you, elected officials and citizens of Israel from the entire public and political spectrum - show restraint and responsibility. We must calm the spirits and lower the flames."

"We have no other country," President Herzog concluded.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid reacted to Netanyahu's statements in a tweet: "Netanyahu, in a democratic country they do not run over citizens or the justice system. You have become a weak prime minister who trembles in fear of his extremist partners. They don't listen to you and are leading the State of Israel to collapse."

 National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaking at the beginning of his Otzma Yehudit party's faction meeting. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaking at the beginning of his Otzma Yehudit party's faction meeting. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Heated public discourse

Herzog's statement was published on the same day a man was arrested in Beersheba after apparently trying to run over demonstrators protesting against the new government's planned judicial reform. One of the protesters at the scene told Walla News that the driver shouted "anarchists, you ruined the state."

During the last few days, politicians in the government and the opposition have exchanged angry accusations of each other. After a demonstration against the government in Tel Aviv on Sunday, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir announced that he would direct police to deal harshly with left-wing protesters who block roads or disturb the peace. 

Former MK and deputy IDF chief of staff Yair Golan called on Tuesday for "wide-ranging" civil unrest to protest the Netanyahu government’s moves against the judiciary. "No more polite demonstrations on Motzash (Saturday night) ... Only actions. Only results... Those who pretend to rule through corrupt, hedonistic, extremist and dark people will discover that the people are the sovereign.”

In response to Golan's comments, Likud MK Ariel Kallner filed a complaint for sedition against him and Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel said that he believes Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Yair Golan and Moshe Yaalon "should be arrested" for committing treason. He added that: "they [the Opposition leaders] are the most dangerous people here at the moment. Not the demonstrations, not [the Palestinian] flags, nothing else."

MK Zeev Elkin responded to Fogel's statements: "Zvika [Fogel], I grew up in a place where it was illegal to say something against the government. In a place where they jailed people for having the wrong opinions. In a place where government politicians told the police who to arrest. Believe me, you don't want to live there. Maybe it's time you calm down?!"

Opposition leader Yair Lapid reacted by tweeting that "It was obvious this would happen. In undemocratic states the government always threatens to arrest opposition leaders."

"This is how a democracy collapses in a day. Ben-Gvir says he will use water cannons against our demonstrators, MK Fogel says Benny Gantz and I need to be detained and thrown into jail for treason because we spoke out against the government and in Beersheba, they tried to run over our students for protesting and using their right to free speech. We will not let them run us over and we won't let them run over our beloved country," Lapid commented in a separate statement.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir spoke with members of his party on Tuesday and called on them to refrain from divisive statements.

"Don't go in the direction of 'arrest Lapid and Gantz, we'll put them in handcuffs. What the hell? Where do you get that from? You know perfectly well that it won't happen. I understand you. Say they are rebelling, inciting against us all the time! But we don't arrest political opponents, the police will not arrest them... I ask, don't talk about handcuffs or arrests, no political dissident is going to be arrested!"

Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz appealed to PM Netanyahu in a tweet on Tuesday: "Netanyahu, the state of Israel needs broad agreements and not the continuation of incitement and factionalism. Your actions which are aimed against the protection of individual rights and basic democratic principles are seeping into real acts in the field. I call on you to condemn the attack on the demonstrators and the harsh statements and to act to unite divisions in the nation and not to deepen them."

"I call on everyone for whom Israeli democracy is important to continue to fight for it in all legal and democratic ways. We will do this without violence and incitement, but fearlessly!" he concluded.

Defense Minister Yoav Galant on Tuesday night called on "all sides from right to left - to calm down. There is significance to words and we are getting into dangerous territory."

"Even in time periods of deep disagreement, the role of public leaders is to preserve the unity of the nation," said Galant on Twitter.

It was unclear if Galant's moderate message was in line with PM Netanyahu, who has allowed various lieutenants to heat up the discourse, or whether Galant was taking his first independent, and potentially risky act as defense minister, in trying to grant equal validity between the right and the left in the ongoing debates over the judiciary, the police and other issues.

Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this story.