Tel Aviv — “The people decided. Netanyahu has no substitute!”
Several dozen supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shouted and chanted on Rothschild Boulevard on Saturday night, holding up signs reading, “Bibi, the people are with you.”
It was a counter-demonstration just a few yards from what has become a weekly protest calling for the resignation of the Israeli leader amid a raft of corruption allegations and police investigations.
Indeed, it turns out that the pro-Netanyahu slogans at the rally reflect a widely held sympathy for a prime minister who is seen as tough and successful at maintaining Israeli security in the face of threats from Iran.
Even as the corruption allegations and investigations swirling around the prime minister have multiplied and become more ominous, many Israelis are rallying to his side.
That sympathy could be found among produce merchants behind the stands at Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. Though they are inclined to believe the corruption allegations that the police are investigating, there still seems to be a groundswell of support for Netanyahu, the leader who many Israelis believe has no peer in the political system.
“He’s a good leader; he’s smart,” said Ezra Gindi over a wedge of clementine. “Our problem is that we don’t have another leader,” the 60-something fruit merchant continued. “He has no replacement. … If there were another leader who wasn’t a wimp, I wouldn’t mind if they push [Netanyahu] aside.”
Yona Yosef, Gindi’s partner at the citrus fruit stand, chimed in. Corruption, he argued, has become a governmental norm. “This happens all over the world. What, [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak didn’t steal from his country? [Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat didn’t take all the money that was donated to the Palestinians? [Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert wasn’t a thief? So why are they making such a big story over this? Everyone is trying to bring down his government.”
The most important qualification for a prime minister is resilience and an ability to stand up to international pressure, the merchants agreed. In that respect, Israel could use a strong leader like Vladimir Putin, said Yosef.
Netanyahu and his close aides are implicated in five separate corruption inquiries.
“The people decided. Netanyahu has no substitute!”
In the affair dubbed “Case 1,000,” the police accuse the prime minister of accepting bribes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the form of expensive cigars. In “Case 2,000,” police alleged that he and the publisher of the Yediot Achronot newspaper discussed a deal for favorable press coverage in return for legislation limiting a competitor.
In “Case 4,000,” the police are investigating whether Walla! News website owner Shaul Elovitch gave Netanyahu favorable coverage in return for government regulations worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Elovitch’s telephone monopoly, Bezeq. Last week, a confidant of Netanyahu who served as the director general of the communications ministry, cut a deal with authorities to become a state witness — a move expected to tie the prime minister to graft.
In still another case, Netanyahu associates are suspected of offering to appoint a justice to the post of attorney general in return for a commitment not to pursue charges against Sara Netanyahu. In “Case 3000,” Netanyahu’s associates are suspected of helping a German company win an Israeli government submarine-manufacturing contract that was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I hope the truth comes to light. The allegations they are discussing in the media are very grave,” said Nissan Almog, a 34-year-old theater producer. “This is hurting the core values of the state of Israel: the rule of law. People don’t trust the police, the courts, the media or the government — whom should we believe?”
“It’s disgusting. I can’t watch television because of this,” said Goel Kochaloni, the owner of a dry goods mini-market in the Carmel Market who usually supports centrist political parties. “I think that eventually, [Netanyahu] will go. His allies will force him out, but now they are afraid to lose their seats [in the government].”
As Nitza Kantor browsed groceries in the mini-market, she complained that Israel is in danger of becoming a “banana republic.”
“The problem is with the people,” said the retired high school teacher. “[Netanyahu] still has a lot of support. They think he’s God.” Kantor’s husband, Dan, added: “They feel Likud protects them from Iran and Hezbollah, and helps them take revenge on the Ashkenazi elites. The Likud is like their father and mother.”
A raft of public opinion surveys conducted over the two weeks since the police recommended indictments in Case 1,000 and 2,000 indicated that all the allegations haven’t dented support for Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Some surveys even indicated an uptick in support for Likud.
“This is hurting the core values of the state of Israel: the rule of law. People don’t trust the police, the courts, the media or the government — whom should we believe?”
“As long as there is security, calm, a stable leadership and the feeling of prosperity, there will be many in the Israeli public that will go along with Netanyahu,” wrote Haaretz editor in chief Aluf Ben in the newspaper.
At a stand with a rainbow of pickled olives, Hussein Natsche said that even though he’s been a longtime supporter of the Labor Party, he would vote Likud if elections were held today.
Natsche complained that the investigations are weakening Netanyahu’s ability to defend Israel against missiles from Iran and Gaza.
“We haven’t seen any investigations against a prime minister like they are conducting against Bibi. They haven’t brought any proof. This is a present that we are giving to the Iranians,” said Natsche, the president of the Carmel Market’s merchants association.
“If a missile comes from Gaza or Iran, it doesn’t differentiate between Arab and Jew,” Natsche said. “I believe him when he says nothing will come out of the investigations because he did nothing wrong.”