At a mass rally on Saturday night in Tel Aviv, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of deceiving his voters and pursuing his own personal interests ahead of those of Israel. His No.2, Yair Lapid, urged all MKs of principle to vote with the opposition against legislation he said threatened to destroy Israeli democracy, and named five coalition MKs who he implored to act in accord with democratic principles.
Speaking to tens of thousands who gathered to protest against looming legislative efforts by the incoming coalition to grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution and radically limit the power of the Supreme Court, Gantz and other opposition MKs vowed to prevent Netanyahu from destroying Israeli democracy and turning Israel into Turkey.
Pending a hearing, Netanyahu is facing indictment for fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases, and bribery in one of them.
Addressing the crowd at the demonstration outside the Tel Aviv Museum, Gantz said Netanyahu was “trying to enslave a whole nation to his personal interests.”
“Benjamin Netanyahu,” Gantz called out, addressing the premier directly, “during the election campaign you spoke of the security of the State of Israel; today, you are mainly focused on your own security and your own personal freedoms. You deceived your voters.”
Gantz said he and his party would not allow Israel to become “the private estate of a royal family or sultanate.”
Earlier Saturday, Gantz said Netanyahu was “elected prime minister, not sultan,” in an interview aired on Channel 12. Charging that Netanyahu was “behaving like a sultan,” Gantz said the prime minister’s intended new coalition partners were like “lambs” he was shepherding “down the wrong path.”
Tens of thousands of people attended the rally, which began shortly before 8:30 p.m. under the banner “Stopping the Immunity Law — A Defensive Shield for Democracy.” Many were wearing Turkish-style fez headgear.
The event was primarily organized by the largest opposition party — Blue and White — alongside Meretz and the Labor Party. Both Arab-Israeli political parties announced Saturday afternoon that they, too, would participate after an outcry over Blue and White’s alleged failure to include non-Jewish representatives among the speakers at the demonstration.
Gantz took the podium, followed by Blue and White No.2 Yair Lapid, Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay, Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg, and Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Arab-majority faction Hadash-Ta’al.
At the rally, Lapid gave a fiery speech, saying the opposition would not allow Netanyahu to behave like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled over the country in one position or another since 2003.
“We won’t have a Turkish dictator. We won’t allow it,” Lapid said.
“What does he think? That’ll we stand silently by? That he’ll destroy the Supreme Court and we’ll stay silent? That he’ll pay Litzman and Smotrich billions, from our money, so that they give him immunity?” Lapid said in reference to United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman and Union of Right-Wing Parties’ Bezalel Smotrich, whose parties are expected to enter the coalition in exchange for concessions, and to support legislation that would both enable Netanyahu to avoid prosecution and drastically curtail the powers of the Supreme Court. Lapid said it amounted to “extortion for immunity.”
The mass protest came amid reported plans by Likud lawmakers and Netanyahu to pass so-called “override” legislation weakening the court so that it won’t have the power to strike down laws and decisions it deems unconstitutional.
The passage of such an “override clause” would mark what has been called the greatest constitutional change in Israeli history, with vast potential impact on the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy, denying the courts the capacity to protect Israeli minorities and uphold core human rights. It would also, not incidentally, mean the court could not reverse Knesset-approved immunity for Netanyahu.
The opposition is hoping to create public pressure on MKs from Likud and other prospective coalition parties who they believe are uneasy with supporting such legislation.
Lapid on Saturday called on legislators who have expressed reservations about these moves to step forward.
“We’re looking for five decent people,” he said — a calculation based on the fact that Netanyahu is seeking to form a 65-strong coalition in the 120-member Knesset. “That’s all we need to save this country. Five decent people,” Lapid said, naming the potential candidates.
“Gilad Erdan [Likud], I know what you think. I know what you think about the immunity laws. The journalists know, the public knows. Don’t be a coward. Do what you believe.
“Avi Dichter [Likud], you’ve always been a decent man. Do you really want everyone who served with you in the IDF to be ashamed of you? That everyone who served in the Shin Bet with you will be embarrassed by you?
“Roy Folkman [Kulanu], 150,000 people voted for you because you promised to oppose immunity. You promised. Isn’t that worth anything? Did you cheat them?
“Nir Barkat [Likud], is this how you want to start your Knesset career? As someone who Bibi bent to his will? Someone without a spine?
“Yuli Edelstein [Likud], there will never be a president of Israel who lends his support to the destruction of the Supreme Court. There will never be a president who helped destroy our democracy. If now, at this moment, you don’t take a stand against this, you’ll never be president,” he said.
Lapid added that there were others who could “stand up and say this isn’t why we’re in politics,” including, he said, Yuval Steinitz (Likud), Gila Gamliel (Likud), and Yitzhak Cohen (Shas).
Addressing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Lapid asked why he agreed to allow Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing to be postponed to October, saying Mandelblit was “rewarding” the PM for his “childish games.”
Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 election. Two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties won five. Together, these parties hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, with its five seats, for a majority. Liberman, however, is refusing to sign up unless a key bill, the Haredi draft law, is passed unchanged — something the ultra-Orthodox parties oppose.
Lapid vowed that Saturday’s protest would be the first of many.
“This is just the beginning. We won’t let him… destroy the country,” he said.