Under growing pressure as criminal investigations threaten to implicate him and his closest aides, the beleaguered leader decided to circumvent the media, which relentlessly spreads word of his troubles, and address the people directly.
Speaking as though at the height of an election campaign, he proclaimed his love of the people and reminded them of his great electoral victories, and the good he had personally brought them and the country.
In front of thousands of partisan supporters who cheered his every word, he railed against those who were plotting to bring him down, accusing the media and the left of siding with the country’s enemies in a brazen, despicable bid to oust him.
Emulating their leader, the devoted attendees took it upon themselves to show that they too had enough, shouting insults at attending journalists and even threatening violence.
I’m talking here, of course, about Benjamin Netanyahu and the rally his Likud party held Wednesday evening amid a series of graft investigations and scandals surrounding the prime minister and his family.
But much the same could have been said of US President Donald Trump and the mass rallies he has held as his popularity plummets and reports accumulate over his alleged collusion with Russia.
Organized by belligerent coalition chairman David Bitan, the Tel Aviv gathering was billed as a “show of support for the prime minister,” but it became clear on my arrival that there was plenty the 3,000 participants were also rallying against.
At the entrance to the Tel Aviv Exhibition Halls, one party member held a clear message for the media arriving to cover the event. “Fake new is fucking news,” read the huge sign he held; later, having made his way to the front of the crowd, he raised it high for the television cameras to pick up clearly.
Several Likud activists waiting alongside me in the security line took offense at the fact that I, a journalist, was present at all.
“Why are you here?” asked Yisrael Cohen, a party member from Hadera draped in an Israeli flag. “I came here today to say that Bibi is our leader and we support him no matter what. It’s you in the media who are trying to bring him down. At every turn you try to get him. You won’t give up. But neither will we. We will stand up for Bibi. He cares about us, you don’t.”
Others were less courteous, calling me (to my face) a “fucking journalist shit,” a “traitor,” and, on several occasions, a “homo.”
Inside the hall, the high-energy crowd sang “Netanyahu is the king of Israel,” to the tune of “David Melech Yisrael.” They chanted, “There will be nothing because there is nothing,” a phrase the prime minister has repeated in reference to the corruption allegations against him.
Netanyahu has escaped several scandals before, but the scope of the latest accusations appears to pose his stiffest challenge yet.
Ari Harow, a former key associate of the prime minister, signed a deal on Friday to turn state’s witness, a day after police explicitly said for the first time that investigations involving Netanyahu revolve around “bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”
One investigation involving Netanyahu, dubbed by police as “Case 1000,” concerns claims he improperly accepted lavish gifts from wealthy supporters, including Australian billionaire James Packer and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. The second investigation, “Case 2000,” concerns Netanyahu’s alleged attempts to strike a deal with publisher Arnon Mozes of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper group to promote legislation to weaken Yedioth’s main competitor in exchange for more favorable coverage of Netanyahu by Yedioth.
But for many of the participants, including some Likud Knesset members, the police and state prosecution leading the probes are mere puppets, controlled by the all-powerful media.
Outspoken MK Oren Hazan, who had no problem accommodating a line of reporters seeking interviews, told me that those same journalists, maybe me as well, were “breathing down the necks and whispering in the ears of [Attorney General Avichai] Mandelblit and the state prosecution and trying to influence them.”
Likud MK Yaron Mazuz said the event was aimed at “protesting against anyone who is trying to destroy Bibi: The media, the state prosecution, the leftist traitors.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, a new Likud member rumored to be eyeing the top spot in the party for himself one day, suggested there was a media-led conspiracy against the prime minister. “Nobody is above the law but everyone, including the prime minister, is innocent until proven guilty. They want to investigate him, fine — but the media is right in the interrogation room. This is totally unacceptable,” he told me while taking selfies with his own supporters.
Asked if the state prosecution may be conspiring with elements in the media, Barkat said, “There is no other explanation.”
As the lights dimmed and the pumping Mizrahi pop music grew louder in anticipation of the prime minister’s speech, the crowd neared fever pitch, waving Likud and Israeli flags and almost uniformly breaking into a chant of the prime minister’s nickname, “Bibi, Bibi, Bibi.”
Just as Trump’s rally speeches are often preceded by a hardline opening act, before Netanyahu took the stage, Bitan gave a rabble-rousing introduction, placing the cross hairs on the target that the prime minister would later highlight.
“There are 3,000 people here from all over the country. I say to the media, this time, tell the truth about how many there are,” Bitan said to raucous applause. He then promised that no one, “not pressure from the media or anyone else,” will manage to bring down Netanyahu.
“The people of Israel are sovereign in Israel, no one else,” Bitan concluded. The people. Not the press.
With the crowd fully riled up, Netanyahu, arm-in-arm with his wife Sara — who is also facing an indictment for allegedly misusing state funds at the prime minister’s residence — walked on stage to the cheers of the crowd.
“The thought police in the media work full-time to set the agenda, and woe to anyone who veers away from it,” Netanyahu said in a chilling accusation. “We know that the left and the media — and we know that it’s the same thing — is on an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family with the goal of achieving a coup against the government.”
The crowd chanted: “Down with the media.”
Netanyahu also asserted that the ostensibly illicit effort to oust him was designed to achieve an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but vowed this would not happen. He and his supporters would “proudly carry the flag of Israel… for many more years,” he promised, pledging that Likud would grow from 30 to 40 seats in the next elections “with God’s help.”
But the prime minister, buoyed by his supporters, went further than criticizing an antagonistic media landscape. He accused the media of felling right-wing leaders, subsequently leading to Israeli deaths.
“This is not the first time that the media has brought these fake accusations against the right. They brought down [then-Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir in 1992 and brought us Oslo and bus bombings and dead people in restaurants,” Netanyahu said. In 1999, when he himself was ousted by Ehud Barak, “the media promised he would bring a new dawn,” but he in fact brought the Second Intifada and more than 1,000 Israeli deaths, he added.
After his speech, members of the Likud Knesset faction, including all of the party’s ministers who were present, joined Netanyahu on stage as he and Sara were presented with a bouquet of flowers. The crowd sang one more round of “Netanyahu is the king of Israel,” before the official national anthem, Hatikvah, was played.
As the exiting crowd streamed past the tables where my colleagues from other news outlets and I were sitting, still writing about the event, one participant had a final message.
Gone was the “down with journalists” chant heard earlier. “Death to journalists,” he shouted at us.