Thousands of Israelis Attend Anti-Government Protest Ahead of Election Day

Protesters gathered in central Tel Aviv on Saturday to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just ten days before parliamentary elections.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 7 2015, 10:55pm

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Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in central Tel Aviv on Saturday evening to protest against the country's incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just 10 days before parliamentary elections are due to be held across the country.

Organized under the banner of "Israel Wants Change" by grassroots movement "Million Hands," which also advocates for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, the protest attracted around 35,000 people to central Rabin Square, according to police estimates.

Soaring house prices, the rising cost of living and a bloody summer war with Gaza are some of the main criticisms many Israelis have of Netanyahu, who is seeking a fourth term as prime minister in the upcoming election.

"The most important issue is to kick Bibi out. We are desperate," Sigal Azargahu, 52, told Vice News. "The next generation has no vision. No vision of peace. No vision of a good standard of living. We are internationally isolated because of Israel's foreign policy." 

The plaza was filled with Israel flags and banners supporting left-wing parties Meretz and the Zionist Union - a merger of the center-leftist Hatnuah and Labor party. But the protest also attracted some people who said they normally voted for Netanyahu's center-right Likud party.

Related: The US Is Reassuring Arab Allies over the Iranian Nuclear Talks — But Is a Deal in Reach?

A protester named Yair, who did not want to give his family name, said that while he had voted for Netanyhu's party in the last two elections, "nothing had changed."

"I have a son who is about to go into the military," he said. "I'm proud he will defend Israel, but I want him to have a future, and he won't even be able to afford a house here," he told VICE News.

Israel's prime minister has attracted criticism from a number of high-ranking former security officials following the controversial speech about Iran he made to the US Congress last week at the invitation of Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner.

Taking to the stage on Saturday evening, Meir Dagan, a former chief of Israel's intelligence agency, told the protesters that he was "frightened" by the prime minister's leadership. "Israel is a nation surrounded by enemies, but our enemies are not the ones that scare me," he said to applause before adding he had no political allegiance other than "to the state of Israel."

Earlier this week Dagan slammed Netanyahu's controversial Congressional address in an interview to Israeli television calling it a "bullshit… political speech that cause defense and diplomatic damage to Israel," adding that Netanyahu's policies were leading the country towards "apartheid."

Related: Bibi Goes to Washington: AIPAC, Iran, and Nukes

Dagan is not the only senior security official to have publicly called for a boycott of Netanyahu on polling day. Following the prime minister's Congressional appearance a group called Commanders for Israel's Security, which describes itself as a nonpartisan body of more than 200 retired military officers, slammed Netanyahu for his destructive policies.

"The prime minister's current policy is destroying the covenant with the United States… Anyone who pokes a finger in the eye of the president of the United States will find it very hard to reach any kind of understanding with him," Amnon Reshef, the group's director, said at a press conference. "It is likely that Israeli citizens will draw the correct conclusion — change the prime minister,"

Among the rally's other speakers on Saturday was Michal Kastan Keidar, a widow of an officer killed during Israel's "Operation Protective Edge" in Gaza last summer. 

"It's impossible to speak all the time about Iran and to turn a blind eye to the bloody conflict with the Palestinians which costs us so much blood," she told the crowd.

The seven-week summer war in the Gaza strip last year cost the lives of 66 Israeli soldiers and more than 2,200 Palestinians including many women and children.

Related: Fallout in Gaza: Six Months On

According to the latest polls, the election is set to be a neck-and-neck race between the two major parties, Likud and the Zionist Union, with the latter currently ahead in the polls by around two seats.

However, Israeli politics is a game of coalition building and more votes doesn't necessarily mean victory if the winning party can't find political partners to form a block.  The hawkish Likud will likely find it easier to woo political bedmates for a coalition in a country where right-wing politics dominates.

Tonight's rally is not the only campaign targeting Netanyahu and his Likud party ahead of election day. "Victory 15," a movement of grassroots activists backed by OneVoice - a New York not-for-profit lobbying for a two state solution - has also run a series of "anyone but Bibi" events, including house parties and door-to-door canvassing, to encourage disengaged voters sympathetic to the left to turn out on voting day.

"We've had a right-wing government for nine-years, it's exhausted our society," Nimrod Dweck, the co-founder of "V15," told VICE News. "If we want a better Israel we need to change the government there's no other way."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem