It was a gentle start to a rally billed as an attempt to “Safeguard the country, stop the coup,” as the crowd on Tuesday night milled about in, but certainly didn’t pack, the Tel Aviv Museum plaza five days after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced criminal charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Pirhei Yerushalayim boys choir belted out upbeat Jewish hits as cheerful participants arrived, many wearing T-shirts bearing Netanyahu’s name. Some waved giant Likud or Israeli flags while others bopped to the beat set by the treble-toned singers.
Walking into the square alongside this reporter, Ari Vaknin, a smiling “pro-Bibi, pro-Likud, pro-right” father of four from Beit Shemesh, who came to the rally with his whole family, said he saw the event as something of a civics lesson for his 11- to 19-year-old children.
“I want to show them that we, the people, have the power in this country,” he said emphatically, perhaps unconsciously echoing the words of left-wing protesters who in the past brought their own children to anti-Netanyahu rallies. “I want them to know that no one can take that away from them.”
But pushed on who he felt was making such an attempt, Vaknin revealed an ominous underside to his message. State Attorney “Shai Nitzan is trying to take down the prime minister. There’s no question,” he said.
“We are here to say, and I want my children to know too, that we will not let it happen to Benjamin Netanyahu, the best prime minister this country has ever seen. We are the sovereign and we are the majority,” Vaknin declared, adding with a raised finger, “not them — the so-called elites.”
On entering the plaza, protesters were offered a selection of posters with the cheery Vaknin’s gloomy message. “Investigate Shai Nitzan,” “Prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari to jail,” “Stop the persecution,” and “Cops — or criminals?” were some of the popular choices scattered throughout the crowd. Some demonstrators brought homemade banners that ranged from the darkly comical — a huge cardboard cutout man representing the state prosecution, accidentally sawing off its own arm while trying to get to Netanyahu — to the threatening — mounted black-and-white photos of Mandelblit, Nitzan and Ben Ari alongside the text “Dictatorship. Bring them down now.”
Organizers had chosen one of Tel Aviv’s smaller venues over fears that the rally would be sparsely attended. Though it was set to start at 8 p.m., an announcer took to the stage to say that the rally would be delayed for half an hour because “another 80 buses” full of demonstrators “are on the way.” In the meantime, he raised the spirits of the slightly disappointed crowd by leading the first of many rounds of “Bibi Melech Yisrael” — Bibi, Netanyahu’s nickname, is king of Israel.
While the organizers had said that they were expecting at least 10,000 people to participate, estimates from the Tel Aviv municipality put turnout between 2,000 and 5,000. Nonetheless, in a moment reminiscent of US President Trump’s first day in office, Netanyahu and his spokesperson insisted after the event that 15,000 people had attended (while one speaker there put the number as high at 25,000).
15,000 תודות ❤️ pic.twitter.com/TVFE3ELEg8
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) November 26, 2019
A wide range of people filled the square, from die-hard Likud members adorned in party paraphernalia, to a large teenage group of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans engulfed in cigarette smoke, to a number of huddles of religious-Zionist yeshiva students who had been allowed to miss their evening study session in order to attend and who danced like they were at a best friend’s wedding during the interlude music.
A number of the speakers later thanked “our brothers, the religious Zionist community” for participating in the rally. A woman wearing the Likud’s September election campaign T-shirt thanked me personally, as a kippa wearer, for “showing that the religious-Zionists will never leave Bibi.” She wasn’t best pleased when I told her that I was in fact a reporter, attending the event to cover it.
Netanyahu himself, who was rumored to be deliberating whether to address the rally, did not appear. Also noticeable in their absence were almost all Likud lawmakers and cabinet ministers, many of whom have remained pointedly silent in recent days, refusing to either support Netanyahu or criticize him.
After it became clear that most of Likud’s elected leadership was reluctant to participate in a rally claiming a “coup” was underway against Netanyahu, the party issued a statement on Tuesday evening saying politicians were not invited to the event.
The first speakers of the evening and two of the only three politicians in total that did make it, Netanyahu loyalists Likud faction chairman MK Miki Zohar and Culture Minister Miri Regev, gave notably conciliatory speeches, saving the bombast for the speakers who came after them.
“This is an evening to be remembered in the history of the country. You, the people, have stood up and said that you will not be silent when you see something crooked and distorted,” Zohar said. “We do not want to attack the rule of law. That is not our aim. We want to strengthen the rule of law system. How will it be strong if we do not criticize it? If we don’t blame the system for its mistakes? Should we stay silent?”
The crowd roared, “No!”
After having announced that she would not attend, Regev arrived at the rally and delivered a speech that seemed geared to calm the protesters.
“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 said. “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.”
One protester standing near me shouted in surprised response, “The judges?! No! Only the people will decide!”
Nonetheless, Regev’s assertion that “we won’t let them [the media and the state prosecution] bring down a sitting prime minister” was met by the crowd, the frustrated protester included, with chants of “We won’t let. We won’t let,” a refrain that was repeated throughout the evening.
Snakes, putsches and fighting fire with fire
After Zohar and Regev, however, any semblance of efforts to moderate the message of the evening dissipated into the distance, like the blue and white balloons that occasionally floated silently from the plaza into the dark night sky.
“Every disgraceful act committed in these investigations against the prime minister was ordered by the heads of the snake, Liat Ben Ari, Shai Nitzan and Avichai Mandelblit,” declared Yoram Sheftel, a prominent right-wing lawyer, to boos from the crowd at the mention of each name.
“We will not, under any circumstances, let this putsch succeed,” Sheftel said, restarting the “We won’t let” chant. Other chants led by Sheftel included the infamous “They are a-f-r-a-i-d,” first used by Netanyahu in his 1999 reelection campaign, referring to the media.
Simcha Rothman, a leader of the Movement for Governance and Democracy, one of the groups sponsoring the event, urged the Israeli right to “fight fire with fire,” proposing that Netanyahu tell Mandelblit he’ll be fired if he rules that the premier cannot hold office under indictment.
Turning the anger toward Netanyahu’s political rivals, right-wing journalist Ellie Tzipori told the crowd that Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid “are enjoying the backing of the left-wing justice system.”
Tzipori, lapping up the boos that were almost as loud as those reserved for the lead prosecutors in the cases against the prime minister, claimed of one of the investigations that “Lapid gave false testimony in order to smear Netanyahu.”
Shilo, a 24-year-old protester who made the three-hour journey to Tel Aviv from the Golan Heights town of Katzrin, said he believed the claims being made by the speakers, and that “I genuinely fear a coup by the legal system to take over this country.”
“There is no doubt that they are trying. We are here to let them know that they will not succeed,” he said, visibly enraged.
Ominous video clips
In between the speeches, the crowd was shown various video montages, put to ominous music.
One video showed slow motion footage of Nitzan with the repeated text “Shai Nitzan is corrupt” flashing on the screen. (The images were spliced with interviews with lawyers, including, bizarrely, disgraced former head of Israel Bar Association Efi Nave, trashing Nitzan.)
Another video took a similar approach to veteran Israeli journalists, who were seen on the screen — and booed — talking about the investigations into the prime minister. This reporter did not experience any hostility on revealing his profession to protesters, but several journalists reported being subject to verbal slurs and some, including the Kan broadcaster’s political correspondent Yoav Krakovski, were filmed being pushed and even spat at by hostile demonstrators.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) November 26, 2019
The most disconcerting of all the videos shown on the stage, however, came near the end of the three-hour rally, when many of the protesters were starting to leave.
Set to more eerie music, this clip showed floating words over a Matrix-style graphic picked out from the terrifying text being read out by a deep booming voice. It’s worth quoting in full.
“FEAR,” opened the clip as the word emerged from the Matrix.
“I want for a moment to talk about the fear. Yes, the fear. The fear of a crime family. But not a Mizrahi one. I want for a moment to talk about the fear. The fear of lawbreakers, but not from a broken neighborhood. They are not just lawbreakers, the are the law creators. they are the law and they are above the law because only they can interpret it, however they want,” the voice continued, as more words floated across the screen.
“I want for a moment to talk about the fear. The fear of an elite rule. Sick. Dark. Fear of a dark dictatorship with its own agenda. One that was never elected and that we are never under any circumstances allowed to criticize. And they have black cloaks and poison pens, and many, many, many soldiers. And they are working and working and working, like ants. Working, abusing, taking down, inventing, fabricating, overthrowing, boring a hole in the boat… I want for a moment to talk about the fear,” the clip ended, as far from the cheery atmosphere that opened the rally as possible.
Before finishing the event with the Hatikva national anthem, the organizers said “the next rally will be here or in Rabin Square,” the huge Tel Aviv plaza named for prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated there 24 years ago.
One protester near this reporter shouted in response, “Not Rabin Square. Netanyahu Square.”