Thousands protest in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu over graft probes
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Thousands protest in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu over graft probes

Demonstrators throng city’s streets for third consecutive week, days after PM was questioned for a 7th time in corruption cases

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Thousands of people march through Tel Aviv to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is embroiled in two corruption investigations on December 16, 2017 (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Thousands of people march through Tel Aviv to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is embroiled in two corruption investigations on December 16, 2017 (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Several thousand Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday in another anti-corruption demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is being investigated in a pair of graft probes.

The protest, which was taking place for a third consecutive week but with fewer numbers, also came amid government efforts to push through the so-called police recommendations bill.

Protesters marching down Rothschild Boulevard chanted “Bibi is an embarrassment,” leading chants against Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit whom they accuse of shielding the prime minister.

The protest, which was opened with a Hanukkah lighting ceremony, was held under the banner “We have come to drive out corruption,” a play on the children’s festival song named “We have come to drive out darkness.”

“The revolution has returned,” one protest leader shouted through a loudspeaker, referring to the mass protests of 2011 at the same site calling to lower living costs.

Playing on the chant from those demonstrations 6 year ago calling for “social justice,” protest leaders led the crown Saturday to the trope, “the people demand social justice.”

Rothschild Boulevard, where the demonstration took place, was closed to traffic as a result of the protest, as were several surrounding streets. Police were out in force, including the Tel Aviv rollerblading unit patrolling up and down the central boulevard.

Hundreds held similar protests in several cities across the country including Jerusalem, Haifa, Modiin, Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Thousands of people march through Tel Aviv to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is embroiled in two corruption investigations on December 16, 2017 (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Amos Levy, a Tel Aviv resident who came to the protest with his six-year old son on his shoulders, said he had joined the demonstrations for the first time because he felt “disrespected by the politicians.”

“We love this country,” he explained to his son, “and that is why we can’t let corruption continue and why we can’t let our leaders continue to lie to us.”

Shira Yakutiel, 21, said she voted for Netanyahu in the last election but couldn’t support him with the “stain of corruption hanging over his head.”

“I wish I could believe he was innocent, but the time has come to say that he needs to go,” she said.

Among the speakers at the rally held in Bima Square after the main march was Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Petah Tikva yeshiva and a prominent religious Zionist figure in Israel. Taking to the podium, he insisted that his attendance, which had been criticized by many within Israel’s generally right-leaning religious Zionist constituency, was meant to send a message against corruption, and not specifically Netanyahu.

“The prophets warned those with power of the risks it brings,” he told the crowd. “Corruption means the exploitation of power — used in a way it wasn’t intended — by those who have been given power. Corruption is a strategic danger to Israeli society. ”

Former head of the Shin Bet security agency and one-time Labor MK, Ami Ayalon said that corruption, particularly at the hand of the prime minister, was an existential threat to Israel’s existence.

Ami Ayalon in 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
Former Navy commander and Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

​”Government corruption is more dangerous for Israel than Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran,” Ayalon said, charging that the prime minister was causing damage to the country by refusing to step down amid the investigations.

“For many years I’ve led people into battle,” Ayalon, who also has served as commander-in-chief of the navy, said, “and I have learned one simple truth: We have the strength and power to fight any adversary. The people have the strength to grow and prosper during an ongoing struggle, and we’ve been doing it for many years. But it can only be done if the leadership is clean and uncorrupted.”

Ayalon said that corrupt leadership “has no moral authority to send our young men and women into battle” or to sign peace treaties or even to legislate, “because they turn all of us into partners in that corruption.”

“A corrupt leadership cannot lead us, and is a threat to our society,” he charged.

 

Police are reportedly planning on recommending that Netanyahu stand trial in two criminal cases currently open against him over suspicions he received illegal gifts and favors from businessmen while advancing their interests.

On Friday, following interrogation by police investigators for the seventh time and likely last time in the year-long probes, Netanyahu once again rejected the suspicions against him, promising the two separate criminal investigations against him will come to nothing.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post and tweet. “This time, too, I answered all the questions, and again I say with absolute certainty: There will be nothing, because there was nothing. Thank you for the tremendous support!”

Netanyahu’s close political ally and chairman of the coalition, David Bitan, has also been grilled at length this past week over separate allegations of bribery and links with organized crime during his time as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv. Bitan is a key proponent of the controversial bill.

Likud parliament member and coalition chairman, David Bitan leaving the “Lahav 433” unit of the Israel Police on December 10, 2017, after being questioning by the Israeli police in a wide corruption scandal. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The protests were organized by the leaders of the weekly anti-corruption demonstrations which have been held near Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva for the past year.

The protests came as the coalition has pushed for legislation which would block police investigators from informing prosecutors whether they believe there are grounds for indictment in any particular case and from publicizing information or leaking conclusions to the media.

The bill was supposed to come before second and third readings earlier this month, but the vote was delayed amid fears it would not pass. Netanyahu declared that its provisions would not apply to the investigations against him.

Netanyahu is being investigated in a pair of corruption probes, known as cases 1000 and 2000, that involve suspicions he received favors from Israeli businessman in exchange for advancing their business interests. He denies the allegations against him.

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