Jerusalem — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies branded protesters as “anarchists” on Thursday after they gathered outside a Tel Aviv salon where his wife was getting her hair done, marking a chaotic end to demonstrations against the government’s justice plan.
Sara Netanyahu has long been a polarizing figure in Israel, and the late-afternoon incident in an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood reflected Israel’s emotional divide over the overhaul, which opponents see as an existential threat to the country. Protesters outside the salon chanted “shame, shame” – but did not try to break in. Hundreds of police officers were dispatched to the scene, who eventually escorted him to a limousine.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his political partners have shown no sign of easing up on a series of bills to overhaul Israel’s judiciary. The moves further fueled an already deeply fractured country and sparked the biggest protests in more than a decade.
Protest organizers planned more demonstrations on Thursday, a day after what they called a “day of disruption” turned violent when police cracked down on protesters at a rally in Tel Aviv.
Former government ministers and high-ranking security officials are expected to speak at Thursday’s demonstrations in Jerusalem. Former leading economists, including two former heads of the Bank of Israel and a Nobel laureate, spoke at a conference in Tel Aviv about the economic consequences of the renovation.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, one of the architects of the judicial overhaul, said Wednesday night that despite the growing public outcry, Netanyahu’s government “will not stop the legislation.”
The proposed bills would give politicians and parliament control over judicial appointments, the power to overrule the Supreme Court, and the ability to pass laws that cannot withstand judicial review.
Critics of the plan include more and more former military brass, academics, economists and business leaders. According to them, the changes erode the country’s delicate system of checks and balances and erode democratic institutions. Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies say the changes are needed to curb the power of unelected judges.
The battle over judicial reform drags on as Netanyahu’s trial for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust continues. The longtime leader has dismissed the allegations against him as part of a “witch hunt” by biased law enforcement, the judiciary and the media.
Tens of thousands of Israelis took part in protests across the country on Wednesday against what Netanyahu’s new government said was an attempt to weaken the Supreme Court and concentrate power in the hands of the ruling coalition.
Protesters blocked highways and major intersections in Tel Aviv and massed outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. The scene turned violent on the streets for the first time since the protests began two months ago after Public Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a hardline nationalist settler, ordered police to crack down on protesters he described as “anarchists.” At least 11 people were taken to hospital and police arrested dozens.
Wednesday’s events crescendoed in front of a rare salon in northern Tel Aviv where the prime minister’s wife had her hair done.
Moshe Butbul, a hairdresser at the salon, told the Israeli news site Ynet that another customer posted a selfie with Sara Netanyahu. He claimed that “thousands arrived within minutes”, although the actual number of protesters may have been lower, based on videos posted online.
Reporters at the scene said the crowd kept their distance and did not try to break into the salon. Ben-Gvir then sent a large number of security forces to the salon and said on Twitter that he had ordered the police to “save his life” from the protesters who were “besieging” the salon.
Hundreds of police, including mounted police, broke through the demonstration to approach an SUV. Sara Netanyahu was escorted from the salon by a phalanx of police and got into the vehicle, which drove away with a heavy police escort.
“Anarchy must stop,” Netanyahu said in a Facebook post that included a picture of him hugging his wife. “This could lead to loss of life.”
Netanyahu’s allies came to Sara Netanyahu’s defense Thursday morning.
Galit Distel Atbarjan, Israel’s public diplomacy minister, called the incident a “three-hour terror” in which a woman was besieged by an incited mob. Another Likud MP wrote on Twitter that the prime minister’s wife was “saved from lynching by a mob of anarchists”.
Yair Golan, a former general and former lawmaker from the Meretz party, told Kan radio that “with all due respect, Sara Netanyahu is a political figure.”
Citing what critics say is outsized political influence in the prime minister’s office, Golan claimed he “takes part in decision-making at the national level and approves leadership appointments on the left and the right.”
The Netanyahus have been criticized for being out of touch with traditional Israelis and living a lavish lifestyle at taxpayers’ expense. Last week, an Israeli parliamentary committee approved new aid for Netanyahu and his family.