Visually impaired protester camps out resolutely in hope of end to Netanyahu era

For nearly a year Erez Yalon has maintained a post outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, where he joins weekly demonstrators calling for the premier to resign

Erez Yalon, a disabled Israeli who for nearly a year has dedicated his life to protesting outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, holds a banner as he is joined by other protesters, on March 13, 2021. - (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
Erez Yalon, a disabled Israeli who for nearly a year has dedicated his life to protesting outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, holds a banner as he is joined by other protesters, on March 13, 2021. - (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

AFP — For nearly a year Erez Yalon, a disabled Israeli, has dedicated his life to protesting outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s home almost round the clock to demand his departure from office.

The highlight has been on Saturdays when he is joined by thousands of others united in their opposition to Netanyahu, who they accuse of corruption.

First launched in June last year, the vocal and colorful demonstrations have gained momentum over the past 38 weeks, with one big rally due to be held ahead of the March 23 elections.

Netanyahu, in power for a record 12 consecutive years, is hoping to remain in office following Israel’s fourth election in less than two years.

Israelis wearing costumes take part in a parade during the festivities of the Jewish holiday of Purim, while also protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on February 26, 2021 in Tel Aviv (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“I believe we are going to win big-time because people are tired of this corrupt man (Netanyahu),” Yalon told AFP.

He also voiced his “disappointment” with supporters of the premier, who affectionately call him “Bibi the king.”

“You (still) have people shouting, ‘Bibi is a king, Bibi is a king,’ they pray for him, they look at him like he is God and they believe everything he says.”

Anti-Netanyahu protesters outside the District Court in Jerusalem, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for his trial at the District Court, February 08, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

When the protests first erupted, Yalon, who suffers from severe visual impairment due to a degenerative eye disease, rallied almost alone in his village of Pri Gan in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip.

But then the burly father of three, who lives on disability benefits after losing his job, decided to join the growing anti-Netanyahu movement in Jerusalem.

But unlike Saturday night demonstrators, who shout “Go away Bibi,” and then pack up and go home after the weekly rally, Yalon stays put.

He spends most of the week in Jerusalem, camped by day outside Netanyahu’s official residence holding up anti-Bibi banners and by night guarding a tent pitched by protesters outside the premier’s home.

When he feels tired, he takes a snooze in a flat used as a headquarters by diehard anti-Netanyahu demonstrators.

It’s all about ‘corruption’

Sometimes he goes home to spend a few hours with his wife, Limor, in their village, which is dotted with lush green fields and clementine groves.

Limor supports her husband’s protest activity, saying it “is very important for him,” and drives him to a meeting point 40 kilometers (25 miles) so that he can catch a ride back to Jerusalem.

Protestors during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, February 13, 2021. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Some Netanyahu detractors rail against the premier’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and say protracted lockdowns imposed by the government battered the economy and contributed to job losses.

Others accuse the prime minister of graft.

Netanyahu was the first Israeli premier to be indicted in office for corruption when he was formally charged last year in three cases over claims he accepted improper gifts and sought to trade regulatory favor with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

“Netanyahu should be in court, not in the prime minister’s office,” said Yalon, stressing the premier is guilty of “corruption” first and foremost.

“Corruption is number one.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his corruption trial hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Castro/Pool)

The combative prime minister denies wrongdoing and claims he is the victim of a witch hunt, but he would be forced to resign if convicted with all appeals exhausted.

Some protesters also would like to see Netanyahu tried on allegations that some of his associates were involved in the country’s purchase of German submarines.

Every week, a mock submarine is displayed outside Netanyahu’s residence.

Recently it has been decorated with signs saying: “Go vote.”

‘Society wants change’

Recent polls show that Netanyahu, 71, a master political survivor, may struggle this time to clinch a necessary 61-seat majority in parliament to keep the premiership.

Protesters during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu In Jerusalem, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Analysts say the electorate is divided and that protests have played a role in the political landscape.

“The protests helped maintain a momentum because it made people realize there is a movement… there is a vocal and committed segment of society that wants change,” said political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin.

“Reminding the voters of that has had some impact but it is hard to quantify it,” she added.

During the last three elections, Yalon voted for centrist leader Benny Gantz.

But after the ex-military chief struck an alliance with Netanyahu to form a coalition, Yalon said he felt betrayed.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli after casting her vote in the Labor primaries in Tel Aviv on February 1, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We have lots of things to repair,” he said.

“I know who I am going to vote for. It was hard to decide but I am going to vote for Merav Michaeli. She is an honest woman,” he said of the new leader of the Labor Party.

Until then, Yalon is preparing for Saturday’s pre-election rally, the 39th anti-Bibi protest since last June.

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