JERUSALEM — Beset by corruption allegations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting back and taking aim at an old foe: the news media.
Thousands of protesters gathered outside the house of Israel’s attorney general Saturday night, demanding that he indict the premier, who has led the country for a total of 11 years. It was the 38th time the weekly demonstration has taken place, but numbers have swelled in recent weeks, ramping up pressure.
Netanyahu has made clear that he will do whatever he can to hold on to office. In a speech in front of thousands at a rally in Tel Aviv last week, he railed against “fake news” and accused the country’s liberal left of launching a witch hunt against him.
His words echoed those deployed often by his ally President Trump. Like Trump, the Israeli prime minister uses social media to speak directly to his supporters, circumventing what he sees as a media cohort that’s out to get him. While Trump’s preferred medium is Twitter, Netanyahu has also regularly criticized media organizations on Facebook, where he has over 2 million followers.
The Tel Aviv rally came after police disclosed that Netanyahu is officially a suspect in two cases involving fraud and breach of trust. Although the prime minister has long had a contentious relationship with the press, some journalists suggested things had taken a more sinister turn at Wednesday’s event, saying a hostile crowd bombarded reporters with insults and threatened them with violence.
Netanyahu claims that the investigations — which focus on allegations that he received illegal gifts and attempted to broker more favorable media coverage — are the result of a politically motivated campaign by parts of the media and the left wing to oust him.
His supporters argue that for that reason, the prime minister should stay on even if he is charged.
“If he loses in elections, this is the only situation where he should leave,” said Miki Zohar, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. “Until then, he should stay — or if there’s a conviction. But I don’t think they are going to convict him.”
Zohar said the media pressure has rendered the police incapable of objectivity. And politicians close to the prime minister have said that attacks in the press will only strengthen his support.
The Times of Israel called last week’s rally “chilling.” The left-wing Haaretz newspaper described it as “wild, inciting and inflammatory.”
But Gil Hoffman, a political correspondent and analyst with the Jerusalem Post, said Netanyahu’s speech had resonated with a broad range of Israelis and therefore may “keep the vultures at bay.”
“Netanyahu out-Trumped Trump,” Hoffman said. “The whole strategy of making the press the enemy — Trump learned how to do that from Netanyahu.”
But the police investigations are moving forward. In a dramatic development this month, police revealed that Ari Harow, a former chief of staff to Netanyahu, has agreed to testify against him as part of a plea bargain in a separate case against Harow.
The legal process will probably drag on, with a police recommendation on whether to indict Netanyahu not expected until after the Yom Kippur holiday at the end of September and possibly as late as next year, according to Israeli news reports. The attorney general must then decide whether to move forward, a step that may take several more months.
Although Netanyahu is not obliged to resign if he is indicted, political pressure could force him to do so, depending on the gravity of the charges and whether his coalition falls apart, triggering early elections.
In what has been dubbed Case 1,000, Netanyahu is accused of receiving expensive gifts, including champagne, cigars and jewelry, in exchange for political favors. The second investigation, known as Case 2,000, concerns allegations that he tried to cut a deal with the publisher of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in exchange for favorable coverage.
The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, often repeating his mantra: “There will be nothing because there is nothing.”
But the allegations have piled up. In a third case, members of his inner circle have been accused of corruption in connection with a $2 billion submarine deal with Germany, although the prime minister has not been named as a suspect.
According to media reports, the attorney general is also expected to indict Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, for misuse of funds in the prime minister’s residence.
“They produce endless affairs and articles and headlines, so maybe something will stick,” Netanyahu told his supporters Wednesday. “If not submarines, then cigars. If not cigars, then conversations with a publisher. If not a publisher, then Case 1,000. If not 1,000, then 2,000, then 3,000, 4,000, 5,000!”
Polls show that his support has been dented, although not significantly, by the allegations. One recent poll showed that Likud would fare better in an election without him.
Still, Netanyahu — the longest-serving Israeli prime minister since the country’s main founder, David Ben-Gurion — has weathered many scandals in the past.
The prime minister is still “leading the pack,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, head of the National Security and Public Opinion Project at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “There’s clearly some erosion, but he’s certainly not mortally wounded.”