update deskU.S.-Israel Relations

Netanyahu: Anti-reform protesters helping PLO, Iran

Activists plan to hound the PM during his U.S. visit, which is set to include a meeting with Biden in New York.

Palestinian flags waved at the rally against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial reforms in Tel Aviv, Jan. 14, 2023. Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90.
Palestinian flags waved at the rally against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial reforms in Tel Aviv, Jan. 14, 2023. Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out on Sunday night against anti-judicial reform protesters, saying they are “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in harming the Jewish state.

“The protesters have made blocking roads a normal event, refusal [to serve in the military] normal, and they are defaming Israel before the world,” said Netanyahu ahead of his departure for the United States.

“I was the head of the opposition and I did not slander Israel before the world,” he added.

The comments come on the heels of last week’s contentious Supreme Court hearing on petitions asking to strike down an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary the Knesset passed on July 24. The amended law bars justices from using “reasonableness” as a justification for reversing decisions made by the cabinet, ministers and “other elected officials as set by law.”

Protest leaders plan to hound Netanyahu during his entire seven-day U.S. visit. Last week they projected a message onto the U.N. headquarters in New York reading: “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu. Protect Israeli democracy.” 

“The slogan projected on the U.N. building wall is just a small taste of what is awaiting the indicted defendant Netanyahu on his visit to NYC,” the protesters said in a statement. “We will be waiting to greet him. In the air, on land and at sea. The whole world will know that Netanyahu is a liar. We will not allow him to disgrace Israel and deceive world leaders with his speeches.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday slammed Netanyahu’s comments, saying, “Nothing helps the Iranians more than the [judicial] coup d’état of his government.

“[Netanyahu’s] accusations against the patriots of the protest are more proof of his warped judgment and understanding of reality,” added Lapid.

National Unity Party chief Benny Gantz described Netanyahu’s “attack” as “grave and worthy of all condemnation.

“Even if we disagree on the course of action, we are talking about patriots, lovers of the country. A thousand fiery speeches at the United Nations will not repair the tremendous damage that Netanyahu is causing,” Gantz said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that the “protests against Netanyahu overseas and the defamation against him in Israel cross a red line and are illegitimate.

“When we were in the opposition, we never spoke out against the State of Israel in the world,” Cohen, a member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

“It’s not surprising that this is coming from the same people who call for insubordination [in the IDF] and taking money out of the country, and thus are acting with their own hands to harm Israel’s security and economy,” the top diplomat concluded.

Netanyahu’s office later Monday issued a statement saying that when he “used the word ‘joining,’ he meant the fact that when the prime minister of Israel is representing the State of Israel at the U.N., Israeli citizens will be demonstrating at the same time as supporters of the PLO and BDS, which has never happened before.

“One would hope that the Israeli demonstrators will at least take several minutes to also protest against those who deny the State of Israel’s right to exist,” added the statement.

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly general debate in New York.

“Today, the world is seeing—and I will certainly emphasize this—that Iran is violating all of its commitments, that it brazenly lies, and that it intends both to develop nuclear weapons and continue its aggression in the region,” said Netanyahu on Sunday night.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed off on sanctions waivers paving the way for international banks to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds.

As part of an emerging deal, the Biden administration has agreed to release five Iranian citizens held in the United States, in exchange for five American hostages detained in Iran.

Netanyahu previously slammed the prospective U.S.-Iran agreement, saying, “Arrangements that do not dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure do not stop its nuclear program and only provide it with funds that go to terrorist elements sponsored by Iran.”

The prime minister is beginning his U.S. trip in California, where he will meet “the current leader of the most dramatic development in the new age and perhaps in general, Elon Musk,” said Netanyahu prior to his departure on Sunday.

“I will discuss artificial intelligence with him and I will also work toward encouraging him to invest in Israel in the coming years. He is, to a large degree, paving the way that will change the face of humanity and also the face of the State of Israel,” said Netanyahu. “Israel needs to be a leader in artificial intelligence. Just as we turned it into a leader in cyber, so we will do in this field as well.”

Netanyahu’s delegation is expected to include Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, and Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog.

The Israeli premier is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly on Friday.

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