PM doesn’t address protest, most Likud lawmakers conspicuously absent; minister Miri Regev tells demonstrators to take down signs with ‘incitement’
Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chant slogans and hold up signs in support of him during a rally held under the banner ‘protesting the coup’ in the coastal Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv, on November 26, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)
Several thousand backers of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied in Tel Aviv on Tuesday in support of the embattled premier’s claims that prosecutors set to indict him for graft were attempting to overthrow him in a “coup.”
“Safeguarding the country, stopping the coup,” read the main banner at the rally, which was held at the Tel Aviv Museum plaza on Tuesday evening.
At the rally, the crowds waved Israeli flags and held signs that advanced Netanyahu’s demand to “investigate the investigators.” They read, “Investigate [State Attorney] Shai Nitzan,” “Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari to jail,” “Stop the persecution,” and “Cops — or criminals?”
Netanyahu, who was rumored to be deliberating whether to address the rally, did not appear.
Organizers chose one of the city’s smaller venues over fears that the rally would be sparsely attended. Set to start at 8 p.m., organizers took to the stage to announce the rally was delayed for half an hour because “another 80 buses” full of demonstrators “are on the way.”
Organizers had originally said that they were expecting at least 10,000 people to participate. Reports estimated turnout at 5,000.
Particularly noticeable in their absence were Likud lawmakers and cabinet ministers, many of whom have remained pointedly silent in recent days, refusing to support Netanyahu or to criticize him.
After it became clear that most of Likud’s elected leadership was either hesitant or adamantly opposed to participating in a rally claiming a “coup” was underway against Netanyahu, the party issued a statement on Tuesday evening saying politicians were not invited to the event.
Asked by journalists why they were not in attendance, Likud cabinet ministers gave differing reasons, ranging from having previous engagements (Science Minister Ofir Akunis), to Sigd celebrations (Minister of Absorption Yoav Galant), to not having heard about the rally (Economy Minister Eli Cohen).
After originally announcing that she would not attend, Culture Minister Miri Regev arrived at the rally Tuesday night and delivered a speech that seemed geared to calm the protesters.
“We can’t let our feeling of disappointment hurt the rule of law. Every sign that’s illegal and tries to drag us to incitement, take it down,” she told the crowd. “We in Likud uphold the law, and we want the law to protect us.”
Signaling that the indictments should be taken to court and that Netanyahu should not seek immunity, Regev added, “Only the judges will decide, not the media, not the state prosecution.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced charges against Netanyahu in three corruption cases last Thursday. An hour later, the prime minister held a press conference in which he accused prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power using false corruption charges in an “attempted coup.”
Netanyahu claimed that the investigations were tainted by various improprieties, and accused law enforcement authorities of “selective enforcement” against him. He demanded to “investigate the investigators.”
“I deeply respect the justice system in Israel. But you have to be blind not to see that something bad is happening to police investigators and the prosecution. We’re seeing an attempted coup by the police with false accusations [against me]”, Netanyahu charged.
His political allies soon took up the refrain, with Communications Minister David Amsalem singling out State Attorney Shai Nitzan and Liat Ben-Ari, the lead prosecutor in the cases.
Nitzan, Ben-Ari, and Mandelblit have all been receiving additional police protection over the past year, due to threats from supporters of the prime minister.
Mandelblit on Tuesday condemned the “threats,” “lies” and “baseless slander” directed against law enforcement, in a rebuke of Netanyahu and his supporters’ efforts to discredit the justice system.
“The dignified approach we take is not always embraced by others,” Mandelblit said, hours before the Likud rally.
“I am hearing expressions that don’t have a place in public discourse that are directed at the law enforcement system, and certain senior officials inside it. I am hearing threats. I am hearing lies. I am hearing baseless slander. That is simply shocking,” the attorney general said at a conference of state attorneys in Eilat.
Attendees were eager to express their support for Netanyahu.
The rally was “the beginning of the end of the attempted coup,” according to Ari Vaknin, a self-described “pro-Bibi, pro-Likud, pro-right” father of four from Beit Shemesh, who came to the rally with his family.
“Shai Nitzan is trying to take down the prime minister. There is no question,” he said. “We are here to say, and I want my children to know too, that we will not let it happen to Benjamin Netanyahu, the best prime minister this country has ever seen. We are the sovereign and we are the majority.”
“There are places where there is a military coup and the military removes elected officials, and there is also a legal coup that takes place above the table in front of our eyes,” Simcha Rothman, a leader of the Movement for Governance and Democracy, one of the groups sponsoring the event, told Channel 12.
Organizers tried to overcome logistical problems. At one point, Likud’s faction chairman MK Miki Zohar, one of the few politicians in attendance, took to the stage to start the speeches portion of the evening, but a faulty sound system left him delivering an obviously animated speech to himself as the crowd shouted, “We can’t hear!”
“The public can’t ignore this. It has to come out in masses,” Zohar later told Channel 12 television.
Mandelblit’s announcement Thursday did not include the official filing of an indictment, as the Knesset must first decide whether to grant Netanyahu procedural immunity, a process that — due to the current political gridlock and the lack of a functioning government — could drag on for months.
Netanyahu’s chief political rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, slammed Netanyahu for the rally.
“The right to protest and freedom of expression are the centerpiece of democracy. In a healthy democracy, a person has the right to freely express their opinion,” Gantz tweeted on Tuesday, adding, “In a healthy democracy, a prime minister doesn’t organize a protest against the law enforcement system that he oversees.”
Blue and White No 2. Yair Lapid issued a scathing statement accusing Netanyahu of fomenting civil war on Monday.
“Avichai Mandelblit was assigned personal security. The state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, was assigned personal security. Taxation and economic crimes prosecutor Liat Ben Ari was assigned personal security. They are facing death threats,” he said in a statement. “There’s no question about the cause. It’s clear Netanyahu is inciting against them. They need security because otherwise his people will hurt them. That’s what we’ve come to. He’s called on his people to go out to the streets for a violent revolt against the country.”
The only senior Likud figure who spoke out against Netanyahu’s attacks on the justice system was his rival Gideon Sa’ar, who has launched a leadership challenge against Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s rhetoric, he has said, “harms the Likud’s statesmanlike approach” and “aims not for reform but to destroy the institutions of law enforcement.”