Thousands rally in support of Netanyahu in Tel Aviv

Netanyahu supporters gathered to show solidarity with the Israeli leader as he battles corruption charges and challenges from within his own party.

By Associated Press

Thousands of people rallied in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday in what was intended to be a show of strength for the Israeli leader as he battles a corruption indictment and a possible rebellion within his own party.

The strong turnout could give Netanyahu a boost in terms of public opinion and against potential rivals in his Likud party as the country appears to be heading toward new elections. Netanyahu has claimed that he is the victim of an attempted “coup” by overzealous police investigators and prosecutors.

As the protest got underway in central Tel Aviv, a crowd of roughly 5,000 people rallied for Netanyahu, hoisting Israeli flags and posters that accused prosecutors of “blackmail” and “threats.” Most of Likud’s senior officials skipped the event.

Netanyahu ally Micky Zohar, one of the few Likud officials to attend, took to the stage and commented that the goal of the demonstration was not to “attack” the legal system, drawing boos from the crowd.

“We can’t replace the system, but we can change it,” he said.

Culture Minister Miri Regev, another Netanyahu backer, said the protest aimed to “convey a message that the rule of law isn’t above the law.”

With Israel facing a potential third election in less than a year, Netanyahu is seeking to put down any potential rebellion in Likud by rallying his base of Zionist and religious voters.

Only one top official, Gideon Sa’ar, is openly challenging the prime minister, but the silence of others is raising speculation that Netanyahu’s support could be cracking.

Dissension in the ranks?

The prime minister has been lashing out at police and prosecutors since Israel’s attorney general last Thursday indicted Netanyahu on fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges. His backers have already staged small gatherings supporting him, but Tuesday night’s event was a far larger demonstration.

Netanyahu himself was not expected to attend the event.

Speaking at a conference Tuesday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu, appeared to take aim at the prime minister’s attacks on the legal system.

The fact that prosecutors “are traveling with security guards just because they fulfilled their duties is unacceptable,” he said. Without mentioning Netanyahu, the attorney general called it “outrageous” that there have been “threats” and “baseless slander” directed at law enforcement following the indictment last week.

Israel’s political system has been in limbo for the past year after inconclusive elections in April and September. With neither Netanyahu nor his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, able to secure a parliamentary majority, the country seems to be barreling toward its third election in under 12 months.

Most observers believe a unity government between their parties, which together control a comfortable majority, is the best way out of the crisis. But Gantz and his partners have ruled out a power-sharing rotation with an indicted prime minister, urging Likud to choose a different leader.

The indictment marks the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has been charged with a crime. Unlike mayors or regular ministers, the prime minister is not required by Israeli law to resign if indicted and Netanyahu is steadfastly vowing to remain in office.

The Likud’s governing bodies are working to set a date for a party primary, but it appears unlikely that will happen before Dec. 11, the cutoff date to form a government and avert new elections.

After both Netanyahu and Gantz failed to cobble together a coalition in the time allotted to them, Israel is in the final 21-day period for a majority of the 120-seat parliament to throw support behind any candidate.