Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday asked senior religious-Zionist rabbis to support him during the corruption investigations against him, as criticism of him grows on the right. At the meeting, the rabbis asked him to give priority to settlement construction in the West Bank, sources told Haaretz.
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The 11 rabbis also mentioned their objections to Orthodox Jewish women serving in the military, though the meeting ended with no commitment by either side, the sources said.
The rabbis expressed support for the government's actions but also said they were not "in Netanyahu's pocket," the sources said. Some of the rabbis had sharp words for Netanyahu, with one telling him that he "always calls them when he's in trouble, but later when they need him, he's gone."
Regarding the corruption investigations, Netanyahu "didn’t say a bad word about the police, but he said the media is judging him” and some people “are tempted to believe” the media, one source said.
According to the sources, Netanyahu did not fear a trial in which the truth came out and justice was served. He told the rabbis that he felt hounded, and that there had been attempts to remove him from office.
The rabbis reportedly complained that Netanyahu prioritized the interests of two parties before theirs: Arye Dery’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.
According to sources close to Netanyahu, the prime minister told the rabbis that “there is a political effort, through demonstrations and other means, to bring down” the government. Such efforts, Netanyahu said, toppled the right-wing government in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister. “This time we will make sure that it won’t happen,” Netanyahu added.
The police are investigating Netanyahu in two cases; one involves lavish gifts that the prime minister allegedly received from wealthy businessmen. The other involves conversations between Netanyahu and the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, in which the two allegedly discussed an exchange of pro-Yedioth policy for favorable coverage.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in both cases.
On Saturday night in Jerusalem, for the first time, right-wingers held an anti-corruption rally in which Netanyahu was criticized as well.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Netanyahu reportedly thanked one of the rabbis present, former Knesset member Haim Druckman, for speaking out against the demonstration in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. Some 800 people attended the protest, which was organized by one of Netanyahu’s former top aides, journalist Yoaz Hendel, and was billed as a demonstration in favor of the rule of law.
In the run-up to the protest, Netanyahu’s aides contacted Knesset members from the governing coalition and other public figures on the right to urge them not to take part.
Due to this pressure, two MKs from Netanyahu’s Likud party, Oren Hazan and Yehudah Glick, scrapped plans to attend. But two MKs from Likud’s largest coalition partner, the center-right Kulanu party, did attend – Rachel Azaria and Roy Folkman.
According to one source, Netanyahu thanked the rabbis on Tuesday for their backing even before any explicit backing had been given.“His words were words of thanks, not of request,” the source said.
Also, the rabbis acknowledged that they consulted with Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, which is closely linked to the religious-Zionist community.
The rabbis who attended the meeting included Druckman, Eli Sadan, David Stav, Elyakim Levanon, Yoel Bin-Nun, Yaakov Shapira and David Fendel.
Rabbi Zalman Melamed, who owns the Arutz Sheva media outlet, decided not to attend, saying he did not want to serve as the prime minister’s tool.
According to a source close to Netanyahu, Sadan voiced explicit support for the prime minister.
“A Jew like you, who has been in government for 20 years, could have earned 10 times, 100 times, as much in civilian life,” the source quoted Sadan as saying.
“To say it’s a problem that you received a cigar — if it weren’t funny, it would simply be an unparalleled scandal. This is anarchy, a lack of seriousness; it’s corruption. They want to replace the government in this way rather than through the ballot box.”
One source present at the meeting confirmed the quotes by Sadan.
“Some people there were very worried by the fact that a pretty unbridled witch hunt is being conducted here. This isn’t proper conduct for a democracy,” the source said.
“They aren’t granting him the presumption of innocence. We have a problem with this being taken in bad directions. None of us is a clam; we all speak out, we’re all active people. It’s important to us to voice our views,” he added.
“I’m convinced that every person in Israel would be very, very happy if in the end the prime minister emerged white as snow. He represents our country to the world. Let’s let the law enforcement agencies do their jobs without the background noise.”