Reports from Times of Israel and Haaretz premium.
REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK / I was called a ‘fucking journalist shit,’ a ‘traitor,’ and, on several occasions, a ‘homo’
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Likud supporters at a rally designed to deliver a powerful show of force as he battles a slew of corruption allegations, August 9, 2017. Photo by Oded Balilty/AP
Emulating the beleaguered leader, attendees fume at coverage of the PM’s graft probes, shouting insults at journalists and even threatening violence
By Raoul Wootliff, Times of Israel
August 10, 2017
Under growing pressure as criminal investigations threaten to implicate him and his closest aides, the beleaguered leader decided to circumvent the media, which relentlessly spreads word of his troubles, and address the people directly.
Speaking as though at the height of an election campaign, he proclaimed his love of the people and reminded them of his great electoral victories, and the good he had personally brought them and the country.
In front of thousands of partisan supporters who cheered his every word, he railed against those who were plotting to bring him down, accusing the media and the left of siding with the country’s enemies in a brazen, despicable bid to oust him.
Emulating their leader, the devoted attendees took it upon themselves to show that they too had enough, shouting insults at attending journalists and even threatening violence.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blows a kiss to the crowd as he’s surrounded by activists during a gathering to show support for him as he face corruption investigations, held at the Tel Aviv Convention Centre, August 9, 2017. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP
I’m talking here, of course, about Benjamin Netanyahu and the rally his Likud party held Wednesday evening amid a series of graft investigations and scandals surrounding the prime minister and his family.
But much the same could have been said of US President Donald Trump and the mass rallies he has held as his popularity plummets and reports accumulate over his alleged collusion with Russia.
Organized by belligerent coalition chairman David Bitan, the Tel Aviv gathering was billed as a “show of support for the prime minister,” but it became clear on my arrival that there was plenty the 3,000 participants were also rallying against.
At the entrance to the Tel Aviv Exhibition Halls, one party member held a clear message for the media arriving to cover the event. “Fake new is fucking news,” read the huge sign he held; later, having made his way to the front of the crowd, he raised it high for the television cameras to pick up clearly.
Several Likud activists waiting alongside me in the security line took offence at the fact that I, a journalist, was present at all.
“Why are you here?” asked Yisrael Cohen, a party member from Hadera draped in an Israeli flag. “I came here today to say that Bibi is our leader and we support him no matter what. It’s you in the media who are trying to bring him down. At every turn you try to get him. You won’t give up. But neither will we. We will stand up for Bibi. He cares about us, you don’t.”
Others were less courteous, calling me (to my face) a “fucking journalist shit,” a “traitor,” and, on several occasions, a “homo.”
Inside the hall, the high-energy crowd sang “Netanyahu is the king of Israel,” to the tune of “David Melech Yisrael.” They chanted, “There will be nothing because there is nothing,” a phrase the prime minister has repeated in reference to the corruption allegations against him.
Netanyahu has escaped several scandals before, but the scope of the latest accusations appears to pose his stiffest challenge yet.
Ari Harow, a former key associate of the prime minister, signed a deal on Friday to turn state’s witness, a day after police explicitly said for the first time that investigations involving Netanyahu revolve around “bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”
One investigation involving Netanyahu, dubbed by police as “Case 1000,” concerns claims he improperly accepted lavish gifts from wealthy supporters, including Australian billionaire James Packer and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. The second investigation, “Case 2000,” concerns Netanyahu’s alleged attempts to strike a deal with publisher Arnon Mozes of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper group to promote legislation to weaken Yedioth’s main competitor in exchange for more favourable coverage of Netanyahu by Yedioth.
But for many of the participants, including some Likud Knesset members, the police and state prosecution leading the probes are mere puppets, controlled by the all-powerful media.
Loyal subjects of the ‘king of Israel’ rally, Tel Aviv, August 9, 2017.
Top, chairman David Bitan, front, centre right. Both photos by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90
Outspoken MK Oren Hazan, who had no problem accommodating a line of reporters seeking interviews, told me that those same journalists, maybe me as well, were “breathing down the necks and whispering in the ears of [Attorney General Avichai] Mandelblit and the state prosecution and trying to influence them.”
Likud MK Yaron Mazuz said the event was aimed at “protesting against anyone who is trying to destroy Bibi: The media, the state prosecution, the leftist traitors.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, a new Likud member rumoured to be eyeing the top spot in the party for himself one day, suggested there was a media-led conspiracy against the prime minister. “Nobody is above the law but everyone, including the prime minister, is innocent until proven guilty. They want to investigate him, fine — but the media is right in the interrogation room. This is totally unacceptable,” he told me while taking selfies with his own supporters.
Asked if the state prosecution may be conspiring with elements in the media, Barkat said, “There is no other explanation.”
As the lights dimmed and the pumping Mizrahi pop music grew louder in anticipation of the prime minister’s speech, the crowd neared fever pitch, waving Likud and Israeli flags and almost uniformly breaking into a chant of the prime minister’s nickname, “Bibi, Bibi, Bibi.”
Just as Trump’s rally speeches are often preceded by a hardline opening act, before Netanyahu took the stage, Bitan gave a rabble-rousing introduction, placing the cross hairs on the target that the prime minister would later highlight.
Like Trump, Netanyahu claims a media conspiracy and a witch-hunt against him and his wife Sara who is also under investigation. Rally at Tel Aviv Convention Centre, August 9, 2017. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP
“There are 3,000 people here from all over the country. I say to the media, this time, tell the truth about how many there are,” Bitan said to raucous applause. He then promised that no one, “not pressure from the media or anyone else,” will manage to bring down Netanyahu.
“The people of Israel are sovereign in Israel, no one else,” Bitan concluded. The people. Not the press.
With the crowd fully riled up, Netanyahu, arm-in-arm with his wife Sara — who is also facing an indictment for allegedly misusing state funds at the prime minister’s residence — walked on stage to the cheers of the crowd.
“The thought police in the media work full-time to set the agenda, and woe to anyone who veers away from it,” Netanyahu said in a chilling accusation. “We know that the left and the media — and we know that it’s the same thing — is on an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family with the goal of achieving a coup against the government.”
The crowd chanted: “Down with the media.”
Netanyahu also asserted that the ostensibly illicit effort to oust him was designed to achieve an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but vowed this would not happen. He and his supporters would “proudly carry the flag of Israel… for many more years,” he promised, pledging that Likud would grow from 30 to 40 seats in the next elections “with God’s help.”
But the prime minister, buoyed by his supporters, went further than criticizing an antagonistic media landscape. He accused the media of felling right-wing leaders, subsequently leading to Israeli deaths.
“This is not the first time that the media has brought these fake accusations against the right. They brought down [then-Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir in 1992 and brought us Oslo and bus bombings and dead people in restaurants,” Netanyahu said. In 1999, when he himself was ousted by Ehud Barak, “the media promised he would bring a new dawn,” but he in fact brought the Second Intifada and more than 1,000 Israeli deaths, he added.
After his speech, members of the Likud Knesset faction, including all of the party’s ministers who were present, joined Netanyahu on stage as he and Sara were presented with a bouquet of flowers. The crowd sang one more round of “Netanyahu is the king of Israel,” before the official national anthem, Hatikvah, was played.
As the exiting crowd streamed past the tables where my colleagues from other news outlets and I were sitting, still writing about the event, one participant had a final message.
Gone was the “down with journalists” chant heard earlier. “Death to journalists,” he shouted at us.
3000 right-wing Israelis turn up at Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, August 9th, 2017 to be entertained to a pantomime by their PM. Photo by Ilan Assayag
As police go after him, Netanyahu goes after left, media, reprising his old, dependable strategy for fending off trouble
Yossi Verter, Haaretz premium
August 10, 2017
At Tel Aviv’s fairgrounds Israel got a preview of the next general election campaign, which may well be closer than ever. The basic ingredients are in the pot – a wild, inciting, inflammatory attack on “the media” and “the left.” All that remains is to light the fire.
That’s what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under police investigation for suspected bribery and fraud, did on Wednesday before thousands of ardent supporters in a Donald Trump-style event unprecedented in these parts, certainly for a ruling party. The only other party leader to ever orchestrate such a show of support for himself was Arye Dery, two decades ago. We all remember how that ended. [In 1999 he was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and given a three-year jail sentence.]
Netanyahu was careful not to utter a single word against law enforcement. He’s not stupid. But his appearance at this disgraceful spectacle was not just an insult to the intelligence of any normal person, but also a defiant spitting in the face of the police investigators, the state prosecutor and the attorney general. He tried to look relaxed, but he radiated anxiety. He tried to display humour (“I heard that Kaia [the family dog] will be summoned for questioning. Under caution”), but the sweat peeked out from his collar.
A single crooked line connects the supporters who accompanied “Hebron shooter” Elor Azaria in a victory convoy to prison Wednesday, and those holding the placards at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds: their deep contempt and burning hatred for the legal establishment, the rule of law, the value of equality before the law and the concept of democracy. It’s no surprise that Netanyahu is the common denominator to both.
The left and the media, “who are the same thing,” in his words, are responsible for his being investigated. Of course. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, both of whom he appointed, along with State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan are all longtime members of the left-wing Meretz party [they’re not], and all are seeking to overthrow him because their efforts to do so at the polls failed. The incitement against the left and the media heard in the prime minister’s address will quickly soon spill over onto law enforcement and the gatekeepers. No one will be immune to his wrath, his despair, to the loss of wits by a prime minister in distress.
This rally, organized for him by the Knesset coalition whip, Likud MK David Bitan, was aimed at diverting the public’s attention from the investigations, from the embarrassing details that have emerged and that will yet emerge in large doses, and turning that attention to the political arena. Right vs. left is where Netanyahu has and always will have the advantage. In the short term this has no doubt succeeded. In the coming days the public discourse will be conducted solely on the political level, between left and right, between coalition and opposition. The more the attacks against him intensify, the more tightly his supporters will circle the wagons.
Despite all this noise, the police detectives will not abandon their important work, state’s witness Ari Harow will not go back on his agreement to spill the beans about Netanyahu, and the evidence and testimony and recordings will continue to pile up on the desks in the right offices. Wednesday night’s rally might even boomerang. Netanyahu has already been in such a situation; in fact, it was at the same venue, the fairgrounds.
On the eve of the 1999 elections, when he realized the government was about to slip out of his hands, he gathered his supporters and when he was overcome by the pressure, he began to chant, followed by the crowd, “They are a-f-r-a-id! They are a-f-r-a-id!” (“They” being the media and his political opponents, of course.) That spectacle horrified many of his supporters, who on Election Day stayed away from the polls, leaving him with a crushing defeat.
The full column will appear in Friday’s Haaretz.