This was no happy Saturday night for Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In about 15 cities, crowds ranging from about 200 people to thousands gathered to protest corruption and demand his ouster.
Netanyahu is the subject of two police investigations for possible graft and abuse of his public position, and his close associates are the targets of two more. He has been interrogated as a criminal suspect seven times.
On Tuesday, in a Hanukkah gathering with supporters and fellow Likud party members, Netanyahu hinted that police might recommend that he be indicted.
Who cares, he crowed before his audience, because “most police recommendations are tossed!”
Still, the longtime backing of his right-wing supporters appears to be wavering.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu lost a key ally, coalition whip David Bitan, who faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and graft relating to his time as deputy mayor of a Tel Aviv suburb.
On Saturday, Bitan’s replacement surprised Israel with a statement that seemed to put Netanyahu’s continued rule in question. Speaking to a Bar Assn. meeting, David Amsalem said that “a prime minister of the state of Israel who has been indicted for bribery cannot serve as prime minister.”
In Tel Aviv, for the fourth week in a row, about 5,000 protesters clogged Rothschild Boulevard, a major thoroughfare, calling for Netanyahu to step aside.
Jerusalem was the scene for two parallel anti-Netanyahu protests, one in Paris Square, just feet from Netanyahu’s official residence, where about 200 demonstrators gathered to rail against the prime minister.
It was the fourth consecutive week of protests at Paris Square, and the atmosphere was familiar and easygoing. On sale for $5.70 were umbrellas bearing the line, “Not left, not right, only straight ahead.” In Hebrew, “straight” is a synonym for “honest.”
Just under a mile away, in Zion Square, an unprecedented assembly of about 500 of Netanyahu’s supporters rallied under the banner “A Rally For” — meaning a rally for clean government, not a rally against Netanyahu.
“I’m here today not because I’m against Netanyahu, but because I’m in favor of the state of Israel,” said Yoaz Hendel, Netanyahu’s former chief of communications, who organized the demonstration. “I’m here because this is how I was raised in the religious Zionist sector…. I’m here because we cannot live with ‘divide and conquer.’ We cannot live while our leadership doesn’t understand the value of setting a personal example and walking humbly.”
“Being in favor of ongoing settlement in Judea and Samaria does not contradict believing in the rule of law,” he declared, referring to the occupied West Bank by its biblical name.
Whatever the intentions, Netanyahu was blasted by a series of high-profile speakers, including Moshe Yaalon, a former minister of defense in Netanyahu’s government and former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces.
“When we fought, were wounded and lost soldiers and family members, we didn’t ask — nor did our enemies — if the soldier was on the right, left, or any other school of thought,” Yaalon, 67, one of Israel’s most decorated warriors, told the Zion Square rally.
“This kind of unity is needed not just in the IDF and not just in war. Unfortunately, narrow-sighted political self-interests lead to division,” Yaalon continued, asking, “Why do politicians turn the issue of morality into a matter of left or right?”
Yaalon closed his remarks by saying that he does not lose sleep over military threats that Israel faces, but is tormented by other concerns. “Corruption is chipping away at society, damaging equality and costing us our health. Corruption tells citizens that injustice is being done. This is a bigger danger to us than the threats posed by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or ISIS,” he said.
Hendel alluded to the symbolism of the location, Zion Square, the site of a notorious rally in late 1995 — weeks before the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — at which Netanyahu presided from a balcony while his supporters below loudly called Rabin a “traitor,” “murderer” and “Nazi” for signing the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians months earlier.
Aryeh Eldad, another former ally of Netanyahu, took direct aim at the prime minister and at the electoral apprehension gripping Israel’s right. “Netanyahu is trying to convince us that if he falls, the left wing will rise to power, and I share this fear,” he declared. But, he said, referring to the nationalist ideology embodied by Israel’s right-wing political parties, “if the nationalist camp chooses a trustworthy candidate, there is no reason a change of government will lead to the rise of the left.”
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.