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Netanyahu unleashes populist fury over indictments as party members back away

Thousands gathered in Tel Aviv on Nov. 26, in support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was formally indicted on a series of corruption cases. (Video: Associated Press)

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was struggling to both stoke and contain a popular backlash against prosecutors as some of his supporters distanced themselves from the bellicose rhetoric he has employed since being indicted last week on bribery and fraud charges.

The divisions were on display Tuesday night at a raucous pro-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv. Angry supporters reportedly chanted “Die Leftist” and “Arrest the Investigators” and carried signs reading “Cops — Or Criminals?”

Speakers railed against the attorney general and prosecutors — who have been given security details in recent days — parroting the prime minister’s portrayal of the indictments as a “coup” attempt by an unaccountable deep state and a biased media. One protester attempted to grab the microphone of an on-air journalist as another spat on him.

But, following a day of speculation about his plans, Netanyahu failed to make an appearance at the gathering as discomfort over his scorched-earth response to the indictments grew. Few senior officials of his Likud party — who have been markedly silent in recent days — attended the rally, many citing scheduling conflicts when pressed by journalists.

Others, while supporting Netanyahu, have criticized the attacks on law enforcement as misguided and corrosive. Culture Minister Miri Regev, one of the senior officials who did speak under the banner reading “Safeguarding the Country, Stopping the Coup,” beseeched the crowd to tone it down.

“We can’t let our feeling of disappointment hurt the rule of law,” Regev said, according to reports. “We in Likud uphold the law, and we want the law to protect us.”

Her appeal to take down some of the more offensive banners, some naming and picturing the lead attorneys in the case, was probably derived from the same sensitivities that kept most senior Likud leaders away — a fear that the constant attacks on state institutions could turn into violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, breach of trust

Since the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, any hint of political incitement, particularly against individuals, invokes the high emotions of that period. Many in Israel, including Rabin’s family, recall the fiery opposition to Rabin’s peace plan with the Palestinians and some draw a direct line between the fierce criticism and the fatal shot.

According to Israeli media reports, Likud officials cautioned Netanyahu and his proxies to back off the incendiary rhetoric, warning that a war on law enforcement would come back to hurt the party politically.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who oversaw the three-year investigation into the prime minister’s dealings with wealthy business executives, decried the attacks on his office at a gathering of prosecutors Tuesday.

“I hear threats, I hear lies, I hear baseless slander; it’s shocking,” Mandelblit said, defending the state prosecution’s role of protecting Israel from crime and government corruption, human rights violations and abuse of power. “The fact that [the lead prosecutors] now have bodyguards solely because they carried out their duties is inconceivable.”

Netanyahu’s rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, spoke out before the rally, calling on demonstrators to have respect for the country’s legal institutions.

“I emphasize that in a democracy, the freedom of demonstration and the freedom of expression are fundamental principles, as is the right of each person to express his or her opinion,” Gantz said at a meeting of his Blue and White faction in the Knesset. “However, I call upon you, the demonstrators, those supporting Netanyahu and those against, to respect our law enforcement institutions, to have regard for our state and, of course, to avoid violence of any kind,” he said.

The indictments, and Netanyahu’s furious response, have complicated Israel’s already chaotic political stalemate. After Netanyahu and Gantz both failed to form a governing majority following September’s second national election, the parties are in the midst of a 21-day window in which any member of the parliament can try to build a coalition. If no one succeeds, Israel will face yet another election next March.

The indictments have further complicated the horse-trading amid questions about Netanyahu’s eligibility to take part as he awaits trial. Mandelblit issued legal guidance earlier in the week that the prime minister would not have to step down immediately from the caretaker government that has been in place for a year. But he deferred on whether Netanyahu would be allowed to form a new government.

The indictments have produced cracks in Netanyahu’s long-standing grip on his party. One senior Likud member, Gideon Saar, has openly challenged the prime minister and called for snap elections for the party chairmanship. Netanyahu loyalists have pushed back, including Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, who said Saar had crossed a “red line.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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