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Thousands rally in ‘social distancing’ protest accusing Netanyahu of destroying democracy

Demonstrators, wearing masks and standing 6ft apart, said the prime minister was exploiting the coronavirus crisis to stay in power

Bel Trew
Middle East Correspondent
Monday 20 April 2020 20:52 BST
Thousands rally in ‘social distancing’ protest accusing Netanyahu of destroying democracy

Thousands of Israelis, wearing masks and standing six feet apart, gathered in a striking “socially distant” protest against Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Sunday night, accusing him of destroying democracy as the country battles the coronavirus.

The extraordinary scenes, captured on drones, showed well over 2000 people scattered across the city’s iconic Rabin Square, keeping apart in line with quarantine regulations.

Waving black flags, protesters demonstrated against attempts by the prime minister to stay in power by forming an “emergency government’ with his chief rival Benny Gantz, the country’s ex-army chief. Mr Netanyahu is facing three corruption trials, charges he vehemently denies.

The crowds also protested against new legislation aimed at fighting the deadly coronavirus amid concerns they stifle freedoms. Israel has recorded over 13,600 cases and 173 deaths, the government has passed controversial laws including allowing the domestic intelligence agency to track mobile phones to map the spread of Covid-19.

Under the banner of "Save the Democracy," the protesters chanted against Mr Netanyahu saying "corona equals virus in the service of a dictator.”

They accused the prime minister of endangering the country’s democratic institutions and called on Mr Gantz's newly formed Blue and White party not to form a coalition with him.

Among the prominent lawmakers who spoke at the rally were Mr Gantz’s former elections partners including centrist politician Yair Lapid, who had campaigned by his side during the last three inconclusive votes on the promise an indicted Mr Netanyahu would not be prime minister again.

At the protest, Mr Lapid spoke of being cheated.

"This is how democracies die in the 21st century… They don't die because tanks overtake parliament, they die from the inside,” he said, according to Israeli paper Haaretz.

Monday morning, he directly appealed to Mr Gantz on Twitter writing: “Either you fight corruption, or you are part of it. Blue and White, choose a side.”

Moshe Ya’alon, another former Blue and white co-leader and the country’s ex-defence minister, also gave a speech at the rally attacking the government for "starving" the public health system for decades.

An Israeli woman wearing a face mask with "crime minister" written on it, takes part in a "Black Flag" demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Ayman Odeh, an Arab-Israeli member of parliament and chairman of the mostly Arab Joint List was quoted as saying the only way to fight the deadly coronavirus was “a joint Jewish-Arab struggle”.

The protests appeared to have little impact on Mr Gantz, who announced on Monday he was in meetings with Mr Netanyahu about the new government.

Mr Netanyahu has failed to sweep a conclusive win during an unprecedented three elections in under a year, as he has struggled to drum up support since being charged with fraud, breach of justice and accepting bribes.

He denies the accusations and says he is the victim of a “political witch-hunt”.

His political rivals have also failed to secure a majority of seats in the Knesset, resulting in a crippling deadlock that has seen the country ruled by a caretaker government, that cannot push through certain legislation or pass a budget.

מחאת הדגלים השחורים ( צולם בתחילת ההפגנה)

In this latest round both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz failed to form a government sending the decision back to the parliament that has 21-days to choose a new leader to try to build a government or head to a staggering fourth election.

There has been mounting anger at Mr Netanyahu’s handling of his legal proceedings. Mr Netanyahu's hand-picked justice minister delayed the prime minister's trial just two days before it was to begin, citing the pandemic.

Fury was further stoked amid reports the power-sharing talks between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz have stalled due to demands by the prime minister to sweep more control of judicial appointments as well as to secure assurances that he can remain in office even if he gives up the prime minister's job.

Under Israeli law, public officials, with the exception of the prime minister, must resign if charged with a crime.

Israel has rolled out one of the region’s strictest lockdowns. In Jerusalem, home some of the world’s most sacred religious sites, public access has been stopped or severely curtailed to the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre even during religious holidays.

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