Thousands rally at anti-Netanyahu protest ahead of vote
Thousands of Israelis rallied outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence Saturday to protest his policies and premiership, days before a general election that could see the long-standing leader removed from power.
Netanyahu, 71, in power for a record 12 consecutive years, is hoping to remain in office following Israel's fourth election in less than two years on March 23.
His detractors accuse him of corruption and say his management of the coronavirus pandemic, including protracted lockdowns, battered the economy and contributed to job losses.
Waving flags including the Israeli blue-and-white, 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.
"We will keep on protesting until he gets out of Balfour," she said, using the name of the Jerusalem street where the premier's official residence is located.
Netanyahu was the first Israeli premier 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.
The combative premier 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.
- 'Go vote' -
First launched in June last year, the vocal and colourful demonstrations against Netanyahu have gained momentum over the past 38 weeks, with Saturday night's rally -- the 39th -- the largest in recent months.
"I have come here every Saturday since the beginning," said Simon, a Tel Aviv resident who drove to Jerusalem for the demonstration.
"People will not change their side from right to left, but this event is to convince them to go to vote, not to remain silent," he said.
"It is a very emotional event for us."
Others, like Hagit, were at the weekly rally for the first time.
"We hope that this protest will impact people who don't know who they are going to vote for," she said. "I am against Netanyahu on everything."
Final pre-election opinion polls broadcast on television Friday night showed that Netanyahu's Likud party and its hawkish, religious allies were tied for a majority with those seeking to replace the premier.
Netanyahu's campaign has sought to take credit for Israel's coronavirus vaccination drive, which is the envy of many nations.
The prime minister also hopes for a boost from having clinched historic normalisation ties with four Arab countries -- the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
On Saturday, centrist Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party projected to be the second largest faction in parliament after the elections, challenged Netanyahu to a live televised debate.
Netanyahu did not accept the challenge.