Thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just days before the country’s fourth general election in less than two years.
Widespread protests have been taking place since July 2020, with people demanding Netanyahu’s departure over alleged corruption scandals and the government’s handling of the pandemic, including protracted lockdowns that battered the economy.
Israeli daily Haaretz reported some 20,000 people rallied near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, in what was one of the largest rallies in recent months.
Waving flags, protesters led by a young man with a bullhorn chanted “Bibi go home”, using the prime minister’s nickname. They also held up signs carrying a broad range of messages, from the need for a leadership “revolution” to mistrust in the police.
“We came to protest against a dictator,” Anat Gourelle, a 60-year-old lawyer from Tel Aviv, said of Netanyahu. “It is outrageous what is going on in Israel. It is unthinkable that somebody is using his power to steal from his own people,” she told AFP news agency.
“We will keep on protesting until he gets out of Balfour,” she said, using the name of the Jerusalem street where the prime minister’s official residence is located.
Netanyahu, in power for a record 12 consecutive years, is hoping to remain in office following the vote on Tuesday.
The 71-year-old was the first Israeli prime minister 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 favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
Netanyahu 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.
When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he was fresh off a political victory, forming a coalition government with his election rival Benny Gantz following three inconclusive votes.
But that fraught coalition proved short-lived and collapsed in December, with Gantz branding Netanyahu as “serially dishonest”.
It is unclear whether the shadow cast by the trial will hurt the prime minister’s re-election chances. If he wins, he could try to secure parliamentary immunity or pass laws to exempt a serving prime minister from standing trial.
The polls show Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party in the lead, projecting that it will win around 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
But for the first time in his political career, Netanyahu is also facing a challenge from a prominent Likud defector Gideon Saar, who broke with the prime minister to form his own New Hope party.
Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, the largest in the anti-Netanyahu bloc, is projected to win around 20 seats.
Netanyahu has pinned his re-election hopes on the success of his campaign to vaccinate Israel’s adult population.
Israel has rolled out the world’s fastest vaccination campaign, administering at least one dose to more than half its 9.3 million people and the required two doses to about one-third in less than two months.
The disparities between Israel’s successful vaccination push with its own population and the lack of vaccines for Palestinians in the occupied territories have drawn criticism from United Nations officials and rights groups.