Israel’s Netanyahu dismisses calls for early election as thousands protest

Netanyahu has seen his popularity plummet in opinion polls since October 7 attack that sparked the devastating war on Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected calls for an early election as thousands of protesters take to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, demanding he step down.

Netanyahu has seen his popularity plummet in opinion polls since the October 7 attack that sparked the devastating war on Gaza.

Calls for an early vote have been mounting since October when the Palestinian group Hamas launched a rare attack inside Israeli territory, killing some 1,100 people and taking more than 200 others captive, nearly half of whom were released during a brief truce in November.

In response, the Israeli military launched unprecedented air and ground strikes on the besieged Gaza Strip, killing nearly 29,000 Palestinians so far and displacing more than 1.4 million people in a campaign many governments have termed a genocide.

Antigovernment protests that shook Israel for much of 2023 had largely subsided during the war. Still, demonstrators again took to the streets on Saturday night, calling for new polls, which are not scheduled until 2026.

Thousands defied a police ban on large rallies in Tel Aviv as they hit the streets, according to local media, though the crowd was much smaller than last year’s mass protests.

“I’d like to say to the government that you’ve had your time, you ruined everything that you can ruin. Now is the time for the people to correct all the things, all the bad things that you’ve done,” said one protester, his head wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Demonstrators protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and call for new elections in the latest weekly protest against his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.(AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Calls for early elections have been mounting in Israel since the start of the Gaza war [Leo Correa/AP]

A similar protest was held in Jerusalem outside Netanyahu’s official residence, reports said, as anger over the fate of more than 100 captives held by Hamas rises.

The protesters said they were furious over Netanyahu declining to send a representative to Egypt’s capital Cairo for talks over ending the Gaza conflict.

The United States, Qatar and Egypt have spent weeks trying to broker a ceasefire and captive release, but the talks have been hit by a wide gap between Israel’s and Hamas’s demands. Qatar on Saturday said the talks “have not been progressing as expected”.

Hamas has said it would not release all of the remaining captives without Israel ending the war and “lifting the unjust siege” on Gaza. It is also demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Netanyahu has publicly rejected the demands, calling Hamas’s ceasefire call “delusional” and rejecting US and international calls for a pathway to Palestinian statehood.

He said he sent a delegation to the talks in Cairo last week at US President Joe Biden’s request but did not see the point in sending them again.

“Don’t abandon them to die!” screamed people into giant loudspeakers in Tel Aviv’s so-called Hostage Square. “Look us in the eyes, send Israeli representatives to the Cairo conference and bring the hostages home now,” read a statement from the families of the captives.

Netanyahu was asked at a press briefing about calls within his own ruling Likud party to hold an early election after the Gaza war ends.

“The last thing we need right now are elections and dealing with elections, since it will immediately divide us,” he said. “We need unity right now.”

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, more than two-thirds of Israelis believe the elections, which are not scheduled before 2026, should be held as soon as the war is over.

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