Tel Aviv — “Bibi go home!” “Everyone is equal before the law!”
Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed Rothschild Boulevard Saturday evening, chanting anti-government slogans and waving signs reading “disgrace.”
Dubbed the “March of Shame,” the protestors said they had come to protest a series of laws perceived as cooked up to protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates from a handful of year-old graft investigations moving toward a conclusion in the coming weeks.
The atmosphere in the streets of central Tel Aviv seemed reminiscent of the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis flooded the city’s main squares for three months to complain about socioeconomic inequality and the rising cost of living.
Like the protests six years ago, the March of Shame appeared to be a grassroots phenomenon organized over social networks without the involvement of any parliamentary party or any political movement.
Like the protests six years ago, demonstrators insisted that the protests were not about the left-right divide over peace and security.
“We will fight, we will win and send home a corrupt prime minister.”
“We are people that love the country and will protect it,” said Eldad Yaniv, an activist lawyer identified with the Israeli left who has been leading protests outside of the Israeli attorney general’s house for months. “We will fight, we will win and send home a corrupt prime minister.”
Israeli newspapers reported that the demonstration attracted some 20,000 protestors. The police closed Allenby Street and Rothschild, and it was difficult to move outside of Independence Hall, the site from which organizers addressed the masses.
The trigger of the demonstration was the Knesset’s initial approval for a bill dubbed the “recommendations law,” a piece of legislation that would forbid the publication of legal conclusions and recommendations by the police regarding sensitive political investigations.
“I’m worried about our democracy. The government is limiting the courts and the police and passing unfair laws.”
According to the version of the law passed last week, it would apply to the bribery investigations against the prime minister.
Netanyahu is suspected of accepting bribes in the form of cigar and champagne gifts from wealthy friends; he is also suspected of pushing through a law to limit distribution of the Israel Today freebie newspaper, owned by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and thought to be a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, in return for favorable coverage in Yediot Achronot newspaper.
Others that could be protected by the recommendations law include Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, David Shimron, who is suspected of using his top-level connections to win a submarine tender for a German submarine building company. At the same time, Israel’s media is reporting that the prime minister’s coalition whip, Likud Knesset member David Bitan, is suspected of taking loans from Israeli underworld figures who then got a leg up on public tenders.
In a statement before the initial passage, legal experts at the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute called the recommendations law a piece of legislation tailored by parliament members looking to find favor with Netanyahu at a time when he faces legal trouble.
In the days after the protest on Rothschild, Netanyahu retreated by vowing that the final version of the recommendations law would not apply to his case. Coalition members have come to the prime minister’s defense in the media.
“The logic behind the law is separation of powers between the government authorities,” said Motti Yogev, a Knesset member from the religious right Jewish Home Party in an interview with Israel Radio. “The job of the police is to investigate and give its recommendations to the state attorney and the judicial authorities. But it’s the judicial authorities’ decision whether or not to put someone on trial.”
Yogev said that the Israeli left is trying to use “every undemocratic tool” to topple the prime minister and to undo the results of successive parliamentary elections. Yogev said that the issue of the cigar presents received by Netanyahu was not substantial enough to justify dismissing a prime minister.
Netanyahu has admitted to receiving the gifts — valued in the hundreds of thousands of shekels — from Israeli American media mogul Arnon Milchen, but he said he did nothing wrong because it was given by personal friends. The police are investigating whether Milchen got anything in return.
In addition to the recommendations law, Netanyahu’s coalition has also tried to pass legislation that would block prosecution of a sitting prime minister and barring the state comptroller from conducting real-time investigations of government functions.
The prime minister has dismissed the investigation as a conspiracy between the media, left-wing politicians and members of Israel’s law enforcement establishment. He has said simply, “There wasn’t anything because there is nothing.”
Back at the Rothschild Boulevard demonstration, demonstrators said they had come to the protest from outside of Tel Aviv because they were worried about the state of Israel’s democracy.
Addressing the crowd outside of Independence Hall, Uzi Arad, a former foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu who has had a falling out with him, warned that Israel is caught in a “deep crisis.”
“The foundations and institutions of the state that were established by the founders — this structure is being subject to severe tremors.”
“The foundations and institutions of the state that were established by the founders — this structure is being subject to severe tremors,” he said.
Omri Kulikovsky, a 35-year-old education coordinator from a kibbutz about an hour north of Tel Aviv, said he made the trip to the demonstration along with 15 others because “there’s a feeling that fundamental values are being sold out in the name of personal interests. This isn’t about right and left; it’s about equality under the law.”
Waving an Israeli flag after marching the length of the boulevard, Kulikovsky said that he opposed laws that were drawn up to protect specific individuals.
Before the night was over, Yaniv was calling on the crowd to return this Saturday night to the boulevard in an attempt to create the weekly mass protests that materialized six years ago.
“I’m worried about our democracy. The government is limiting the courts and the police and passing unfair laws,” said Eli Gilad, a 76-year-old owner of an electronics components company. “I want to be sure that the pressure will force the corrupt government to step down.”