The rally in support of Prime Minister Netanyahu created many expectations, but it was mainly an internal Likud affair. Its main impact was in bringing Knesset members and cabinet ministers – almost all of whom kept quiet early on – behind Netanyahu. The hall wasn't full. There were between 2,000 and 3,000 people in the audience, nearly all Likud members.
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"All of the investigations into the prime minister and his wife should be suspended immediately, and an objective entity should look into why they were begun and what the motives were!" tweeted the No. 1 fan of Netanyahu and his wife and one of the main event promoters, Lior Harari.
Outside of the hall at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, there were demonstrators from the regular anti-Netanyahu protest in Petah Tikva people, beating drums but somewhat off in their rhythm. They joined forces with the disabled protestors and others calling for Ethiopian Israeli Abera Mengistu to be returned to Israel by Hamas. They were met by jeers including: "Those leftists — you gotta let them have it in the head."
I shoved my way inside. Opposite them stood Avi Elbaz with a sign, which rhymes in Hebrew saying: "The entire left isn't serious. It's not going to replace Bibi."
"I made it first thing in the morning. I'll go stand in front of them," said Elbaz referring to the counter-demonstrators. I noticed that instead of the dots in the Hebrew word "Bibi," there were Stars of David, and I complimented him. "Man, you need a bit of creativity," he replied.
Navigating the line to get in was an unpleasant experience. Everyone pushed and shoved, and some people accused the security guards of being left-wing. "I'm disabled. I've had a heart attack!" yelled one of the Netanyahu-supporting Likudniks who wanted to get in without waiting. "Disabled? Don't come," someone cruelly shot back. Elbaz gave up on the line and decided to do another round with his sign among the leftists.
"Who's in charge here?" yelled the disabled Likudnik still seeking to get in. "Who's in charge? Bibi's in charge," came the reply.
After I got through security, I was excited to see legendary former Knesset member Shmuel Flatto-Sharon sitting and waiting. "Everyone is for Bibi," said Flatto-Sharon, a well-known fighter against corruption. Two young women who recognized him wanted to take a picture. Even Knesset members Amir Ohana and Avraham Negosa, who passed by, didn't get that much adoration.
Inside the hall, the support for Netanyahu was wall-to-wall. Meir Zemer, a 44-year-old financial consultant from Be'er Sheva, who held up a sign stating "Enough with the coup attempt," remarked: "Why do I have the sign? Because that's what it is: a coup. When they lose at the ballot box, they act like cowards." I reminded him that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was convicted and jailed on corruption charges, had not been replaced by the ballot box, but Zemer said the and he the current situation is different. "Olmert was on the inside."
In the center of the hall, there was a raised enclosure where the media were housed, surrounded by excited people shouting angrily and singing Netanyahu's praises. But in most of the hall, the atmosphere was more relaxed. The song "Bibi, Bibi, Everyone Loves You" set to the music of a beloved children's program from the 1970s could be heard around the media enclosure.
Someone was taken aback by a Druze flag, perhaps because it resembles the gay pride flag. “He’s a Druze, I’m his friend on Facebook,” his friend assured him. “I came to support our wonderful prime minister. I’m sick of hearing him being slandered by the left,” explained Albert Zini, a retiree from Kiryat Haim.
When I said it was not just the left and the media that were a problem for the prime minister but also the police, Zini explained what exactly he thought was going on. “There’s a journalist they call Raviv [Drucker] who doesn’t like Bibi. You know how the law is. If I complain that you committed an indecent act against me, you would also be investigated.”
I then saw Knesset member Nava Boker. I complimented her on being one of the first to show up and got reprimanded. “I’m the first to show up, not one of the first,” she said.
“In my circles, there’s a strong urge to defend Netanyahu,” said Yaakov Wieder, the head of the Likud’s ultra-Orthodox staff, who got annoyed with me for not having visited him in Bnei Brak for a long time. “They feel like it’s not Netanyahu being attacked. It’s them. Ultra-Orthodox teenagers feel like they're being attacked, not Netanyahu. It was easy get people to come here on the bus.”
It was hard to pull Knesset member Oren Hazan aside, and I asked that he not give me his usual quote. He responded: “The State of Israel is a state of law. Let the legal system do its job. Or as [former Prime Minister Menachem] Begin would say, f**k yourselves patiently.”
“Take a picture of me with him, this is a dream come true,” yelled some woman, who grabbed my beloved Hazan away from me. I tried to get a quote from his Likud Knesset colleague Avi Dichter, but he just gave me two affectionate slaps.
Then the speeches started. David Bitan, the man of the hour, began to speak. “We can’t see, the signs in the way,” several people yelled. “Your mother!” said someone when Bitan said Zionist Union leader Tzipi Livni had done worse things and not been investigated. It’s interesting that the Netanyahu case was taking place at the same time as that of Elor Azaria, who went to prison Wednesday for killing a Palestinian terrorist, and that of disgraced real estate developer Inbal Or.
All of them view themselves first and foremost as victims and talk about a worse case to show that they’re being persecuted, using terms like “double standard” and “hypocrisy” and attacking the media and the legal system to save their own skins.
Then Netanyahu, wearing a red tie, got up and gave an eloquent speech in a firm voice. He directed accusations against the media, including this newspaper, and directed a barb at former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whom he referred to as “the old man with the new beard.” “Who?” asked an enthusiastic woman next to me, who didn’t get the reference.
But a huge guy who apparently recognized me made it hard for me to listen, and started to scream something at me about biblical Amorites. I didn’t understand what he wanted and everyone was trying to shut him up. But then a Netanyahu fan apparently understood that I was a journalist and started to desperately screaml “Only Bibi!” But another friendly Likudnik interjected: “Half of the people here are crazy.”
The speech ended. Bitan called on Knesset members and cabinet ministers to come on stage and the stage filled up. I also spotted people who are not members of parliament being pushed aside. A bouquet was presented to Sara Netanyahu. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz stood looking embarrassed at the side. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara grabbed the best location next to the prime minister.
And then, after the national anthem, a Likud hit "Zeh Nachon" ("That's Right") was cut off in the middle in favor of singer Omer Adam's "Ya Habibi Tel Aviv," which wasn’t in keeping with Netanyahu's anti-media show.
"It was a success by every measure," one Knesset member's political adviser proclaimed. "The Likud's bread and butter showed up, including the ones who ideologically hate Netanyahu. When they sense that Likud is being attacked, they step forward." Speaking about the difficult days that he and his Knesset member had undergone, he said: "There were a few days when it felt like the end was near, when there would be primaries very soon, but that period passed and people saw that Netanyahu wasn't going anywhere."
But we were then interrupted by a Likud party member who I had remembered from all kinds of party functions. With a sad look, he told me: "This is the last party. It looks like money changed hands. They've caught Netanyahu. I came here to take my leave of him, and all of this happened because of his piggish ways. It's sad for me."
I asked him if he had said the same thing to his Likudnik friends. "They don't believe it. Peres also did that, but they caught Netanyahu."