JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies on Thursday denounced protesters as “anarchists” after they crowded outside a Tel Aviv salon where his wife was getting her hair done — a chaotic end to a day of protests against the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.
Sara Netanyahu has long been a polarizing figure in Israel, and Wednesday night’s incident in an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood reflects Israel’s emotionally charged division over the overhaul seen by opponents as an existential threat to the country. Protesters outside the lounge chanted ‘shame, shame’ – but did not try to force their way inside. Hundreds of police were dispatched to the scene and eventually escorted her away in a limo.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his political partners have shown no signs of letting up in their efforts to push through a series of bills aimed at overhauling Israel’s justice system. These movements have further inflamed a country already deeply torn apart and sparked the biggest protests in more than a decade.
Protest organizers have planned further demonstrations on Thursday, a day after their self-proclaimed “Day of Disruption” turned violent when police used a heavy hand against participants at a rally in Tel Aviv.
Thursday’s demonstrations in Jerusalem are expected to include speeches by former government ministers and senior security officials. Former top economists, including two former Bank of Israel executives and a Nobel laureate, were scheduled to speak at a conference in Tel Aviv on the economic fallout from the overhaul.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, one of the architects of the judicial overhaul, said late Wednesday that despite 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’s decision, and the ability to pass laws impervious to judicial review.
Critics of the plan include a growing number of former military personnel, academics, economists and business leaders. They say the changes will erode the country’s delicate system of checks and balances and erode democratic institutions. Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies say the changes are needed to limit the power of unelected judges.
The battle over overhauling the justice system comes as Netanyahu’s trial on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust drags on. The longtime leader dismissed the charges against him in a “witch hunt” by biased law enforcement, justice system and press.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands of Israelis took part in protests across the country against what they saw as an attempt by Netanyahu’s new government to weaken the Supreme Court and concentrate power in the hands of the coalition in power.
Protesters blocked highways and major intersections in Tel Aviv and massed outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. For the first time since protests began two months ago, the scene on the streets turned violent after Public Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a hardline nationalist settler, ordered police to take harsher measures against the demonstrators whom he described as “anarchists”. At least 11 people have been hospitalized and police have arrested dozens.
Wednesday’s events reached a crescendo outside a posh north Tel Aviv salon where the prime minister’s wife was getting her hair done.
Moshe Butbul, a hairstylist at the salon, told Israel’s Ynet news site that another customer posted a selfie with Sara Netanyahu. He claimed that “within minutes thousands of people arrived”, although the actual number of protesters may have been smaller, judging from videos posted online.
Reporters at the scene said the crowd kept their distance and did not attempt to enter the lounge. Ben-Gvir then dispatched a large number of security forces to the salon, saying on Twitter that he had ordered police to “save his life” from protesters “besieging” the salon.
Hundreds of police, including mounted police, forced their way through the protest to let an SUV approach. Protected by a phalanx of police, Sara Netanyahu was escorted out of the living room and into the vehicle, which departed under heavy police escort.
“The anarchy must end,” Netanyahu said in a Facebook post accompanied by a photo of him kissing his wife. “It can lead to loss of life.”
Netanyahu’s allies came to Sara Netanyahu’s defense on Thursday morning.
Galit Distel Atbaryan, Israeli public diplomacy minister, called the incident “three hours of terror during which a woman was besieged by an incited mob”. Another Likud MK wrote on Twitter that the prime minister’s wife “was saved from a lynching” by a mob of “anarchists.”
Yair Golan, a former general and former MK for the Meretz party, told Kan radio that “with all due respect, Sara Netanyahu is a political figure.”
Referring to what critics see as her outsized political influence in the prime minister’s office, Golan claimed that “she is involved in decision-making at the national level and endorses high-level appointments left and right.”
The Netanyahus have been criticized for being out of touch with ordinary Israelis and leading lavish lives at taxpayer expense. Last week, an Israeli parliamentary committee approved new funding for Netanyahu and his family.