Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday thanked his supporters, denounced the media, and urged his voters to respect the law and court system, a day after a rally by his backers saw calls for the arrest of Israel’s top prosecutors.
Netanyahu made the comments after thousands of people gathered in downtown Tel Aviv on Tuesday, in a show of support for him, five days after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced criminal charges against the premier.
“Many thanks to the masses of Israeli citizens. Thank you for the amazing support. You have moved me. I would especially like to thank the many people who came to Tel Aviv from all parts of the country to protest for justice, truth, and democracy,” Netanyahu said in a video posted to his social media pages.
The prime minister downplayed incidents of harassment at the rally, including against a journalist from the Kan public broadcaster.
“Media outlets will always take individual cases out of the thousands that were there to delegitimize you, as opposed to completely ignoring far more serious cases in left-wing demonstrations,” he said. “That being said, I have one request: It’s important to act responsibly, within the law, without over-zealousness and without violence. We respect the law and we respect the courts. I’m sure that justice and truth will come to light.”
He went on to call into question the criminal investigations against him, saying that “difficult questions” had arisen about the conduct of investigators.
At the Tuesday demonstration, several thousand Netanyahu backers rallied in support of the embattled premier’s claims that prosecutors set to indict him for graft were attempting to overthrow him in a “coup.”
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.
Also noticeably absent 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 originally announcing that she would not attend, Culture Minister Miri Regev arrived at the rally and delivered a speech that seemed geared to calm the protesters. Likud’s faction chairman MK Miki Zohar was also in attendance.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Netanyahu’s rivals in Blue and White have accused him of incitement, with MK Yair Lapid saying the prime minister’s inflammatory rhetoric could lead Israel to a “civil war.”
On Wednesday, last-ditch coalition negotiations between the Likud and Blue and White appeared to swiftly hit a dead end, with Blue and White No. 3 Moshe Ya’alon saying that his party would not sit in a government led by Netanyahu, unless the premier was cleared of the criminal charges against him.
Netanyahu has vowed to stay in office while he fights the criminal charges, which include bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in one case, and additional fraud and breach of trust charges in another two cases.
Two rounds of elections, in April and September, failed to produce an elected government — a first in Israeli political history. The Knesset now has a December 11 deadline for lawmakers to agree on an MK to form a government, or parliament will be dissolved and third elections set, likely for March.