AFP — “Netanyahu, you will never be alone,” the man screamed into a microphone near the Jerusalem court where the prime minister on Sunday attended the start of his trial for corruption.
He was among a few hundred supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu, who had gathered to show solidarity with the premier nicknamed “Bibi,” while elsewhere an anti-Netanyahu protest was underway.
Netanyahu’s supporters even held up signs comparing the trial to the Dreyfus affair which had divided France in the late 19th century, triggering a national crisis over anti-Semitism.
Backers of the prime minister included Mali, who had traveled 70 kilometers (50 miles) from the commercial hub of Tel Aviv to defend the man she calls a “genius.”
“The justice system is working against him,” she said, wearing a bandanna in the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag.
A supporter of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, she said she wanted to “fight to ensure a just trial because Benjamin Netanyahu is pure and clean.”
“It feels like not only Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial, but all of us (right-wingers).”
Netanyahu, 70, was indicted in January for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three cases.
He denies all the charges and accuses the media and legal officials of a witch hunt.
One of these cases, called Case 4000 or the Bezeq case, after the country’s largest telecommunications group, is particularly sensitive.
Netanyahu is accused of offering regulatory changes worth millions in profits to Bezeq’s owner, in exchange for favorable media coverage from a news site he also owns.
Netanyahu, who formed a new unity government earlier this month with former rival Benny Gantz after a year of political battle, says he has not done anything wrong.
But his detractors refuse to accept his denials.
Across from the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, a few hundred rallied waving the Israeli colors and black flags in protest at what they called “the death of democracy.”
“I am ashamed,” read one placard in white letters on a black background, as demonstrators chanted slogans against Netanyahu.
He is “taking the country hostage,” said Dalia Hazon, who said that she made a 90-kilometer (56 mile) bus trip to come and protest.
She said Netanyahu “must resign” and defend himself.
As the trial got underway at 3 p.m., protesters beating drums increased the pace.
“Louder, louder,” shouted the crowd.
“I am very worried,” said Yoav Eitan, 39. “I think that Bibi has no constraints and will do anything not to go to prison.”
The longest-serving premier in Israeli history, Netanyahu is a master of political survival, despite electoral challenges and legal woes.
“I stand here with a straight back and my head held high,” he said, as he arrived in court Sunday.
The trial is expected to last several years.
As the trial began, an anti-Netanyahu protester climbed onto a car roof and opened a bottle of champagne.
“To democracy!” he cried. “We shall not be broken.”