analysisIsrael at War

Anti-Netanyahu protests threaten war effort, hostage deal, experts say

Anti-government demonstrations, which had been on a low flame since Oct. 7, burst forth with renewed ferocity this week.

Police clash with demonstrators during an anti-government protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Police clash with demonstrators during an anti-government protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
David Isaac
David Isaac

The demonstrations against Benjamin Netanyahu are back, this time wrapped in calls for the release of the hostages held by Hamas.

Analysts tell JNS that protest organizers, many of whom, like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, were behind the anti-judicial reform protests, are obsessed with bringing down the Netanyahu government to the exclusion of all else, endangering the war effort and the possibility of a hostage deal.

Since the start of the war, anti-government protests had quieted, only to burst out fiercely in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Tens of thousands turned out, according to estimates, with protesters blocking the Ayalon Highway and accusing the country’s leadership of purposefully torpedoing a hostage deal.

Some hostages’ families, who joined the protests on Saturday, urged War Cabinet members Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot of the National Unity Party to leave the government and “replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately.”

Demonstrations shifted to Jerusalem on Sunday, turning violent on Tuesday night as a group, some bearing torches, evaded barricades and rushed Netanyahu’s official residence.

Police said the protest descended into “unrestrained disorder and street rioting” as “hundreds of rioters tried to break through by force the police barriers placed near the Prime Minister’s Residence.”

Some observers described speeches at the protest as “incitement.” Einav Zangauker, whose son Matan is held by Hamas, said of Netanyahu: “You are the traitor. You betrayed your people. You betrayed your voters. You betrayed the State of Israel.”

She labeled him a “Pharaoh who inflicts on us the plague of the firstborn.”

“We will continue to persecute you: we will burn the country down, we will shake the earth, you will not have a day and you will not have a night. As long as my Matan has no day and no night neither will you,” she said.

Activists protest for the release of hostages outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 17, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.

Not at any price

Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that while he has sympathy for the families of hostages, the protests are not helping.

For one thing, it splits the hostages’ families, Inbar said, noting that “not all are against Netanyahu or the Likud Party.”

Several families opposed to the protests have appeared on Israeli media to voice their dissent. Talik Gueli, whose 24-year-old son Ran, a police officer who was kidnapped and killed on Oct. 7 heroically defending a kibbutz, told Channel 14 on Sunday, “A child of four can understand that elections now will stop everything for six months.”

Inbar surmised that the timing of the protests is linked to the breakdown of the latest hostage negotiations. On March 24, Mossad chief David Barnea directed his negotiation team to leave Qatar where talks were taking place.

The Prime Minister’s Office explained that Hamas refused to compromise on its extreme positions, still insisting on “an immediate end to the war, a complete withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip and leaving its governance capabilities in place to enable it to repeat the massacre of October 7 again and again, as it had promised to do.”

“Basically, it’s not up to Netanyahu to decide whether to free the hostages. Hamas demands an end to the war, which is something to which most Israelis are opposed,” Inbar said.

“The demand that everything should be done to release the hostages is not wise and it’s not even according to the Jewish tradition,” he added.

While the redemption of captives is an important mitzvah (religious commandment), it’s “not at any price,” as the protesters demand. “There are other values. The welfare of the state is also an important value,” he said.

What the protesters are doing dovetails with Hamas’s strategy, which is “population-centric,” Inbar said. “It’s Iranian thinking, that Israeli society is weak and if enough pressure is placed on it, it will disintegrate. That’s why they aim missiles at Israeli population centers and not military or strategic installations.

“I don’t think the protesters realize the effect these types of demonstrations have,” he added.

Activists disrupted the Knesset plenum on Tuesday, rushing the glass partition of the visitors’ gallery with hands covered in yellow paint, a color that has become associated with their campaign. They shouted, “Now, now,” a demand for the immediate release of hostages.

The latest pretext

IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi, chairman of the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF), a group composed of thousands of former security officers, told JNS, “The sad thing is this behavior makes the chance of releasing the hostages less likely.

“When our enemies see these protests, they say, ‘Why should we release the hostages? Look what it’s doing. They [the protesters] are winning the war for us. They’re trying to bring down the government. They’re trying to make Israel lose the war. We might as well keep the hostages,’” he said.

Internal dissension is dangerous for Israel, Avivi added, pointing to last year’s judicial reform protests as one of the reasons for the Oct. 7 attack. “It sent a clear message to our enemies that we are weak and this is a good time to attack. They themselves say there was a connection,” he said.

Avivi discounted the possibility that the demonstrations signal a shift in public sentiment regarding the war. “The vast majority of people want a decisive win. Even many of the protesters want a decisive win. They simply don’t want Netanyahu,” he said.

The hostage issue is really the latest pretext, he said. “Whether the excuse is the price of cottage cheese, judicial reform, bringing back the hostages—it doesn’t matter. It’s not really about that. The bottom line is to get rid of the right-wing government.”

The activists hope to create rifts within the government coalition, to promote infighting. “They’re even appealing to religious Zionist elements, whom they only recently demonized as extremists, to join them against the ultra-Orthodox for refusing to serve,” Avivi said.

The coalition recognizes the protests for what they are and will resist attempts to dismantle it, Avivi said. He predicted: “This government is not going anywhere.”

Foreign money and progressive ideology

Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Zehut Party and himself an organizer of mass demonstrations, first against the Oslo Accords in the 1990s and later in 2005 against the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, said that the current protests are driven by two things: foreign money and progressive ideology. “It’s a combination of those two forces,” he told JNS.

International money, mainly from Germany and the U.S. — “at least the progressive part of the U.S.”—and funneled through all kinds of NGOs is essentially directed towards “the destruction of the State of Israel.

“It’s state money that funds all this craziness,” said Feiglin. “It’s simply motivated by old antisemitism.”

Secondly, the foot soldiers, the ones out marching in the protests, are what he calls “useful idiots,” those soaked in progressive ideology, which has erased the concept of identity, whether family identity, sexual identity, or even human identity—the idea that there are distinctions between humans and animals. All that’s left is individual identity, he said, and so all that matters is relieving the individual pain of those held hostage by Hamas.

This sort of thinking led to the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many guilty of multiple murders, among them Hamas leader and Oct. 7 mastermind Yahya Sinwar. “Never mind that it led to the capture of hundreds of more hostages. It doesn’t matter. We only see the individual pain right now. That’s the ideology,” Feiglin said.

Regarding the dangers the protests pose to the war effort, Feiglin offered a surprising answer. He said that Israel wasn’t heading towards a decisive victory to begin with. While the goals set out by Netanyahu sound good—destroying Hamas, releasing the hostages, and ensuring that Gaza never again constitutes a threat to the State of Israel—Feiglin insisted that “we lost the war before we started when we decided that the goal of the war was to eliminate Hamas.

“It’s the so-called state of Gaza that we ourselves created with Oslo and with the disengagement that attacked us. They chose that leadership,” he said.

Feiglin’s formula for victory is the one Israel employed in 1948. Jews must flourish in Gaza just as they’ve done in other parts of Israel, he said.

“No murderers came out of the village of Majdal, or the village of Isdud, or the village of Sheikh Munis and attacked Jewish civilians on the seventh of October. That’s because Majdal is a city named Ashkelon. Isdud is a city named Ashdod. And Sheikh Munis is a city today named Tel Aviv. And that is the only solution for peace and security for everybody in the Middle East,” he said.

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