Thousands protest against Israel’s Netanyahu ahead of vote

JERUSALEM (AP) — Thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night, calling for the longtime prime minister’s ouster in a final show of force ahead of this week’s parliamentary elections.

The weekly protests against Netanyahu have taken place for nine months. But they have lost strength in recent months in part due to cold winter weather and after early elections were declared in December. Saturday’s night’s gathering in central Jerusalem was the largest protest in months.

The grassroots protest movement believes Netanyahu cannot serve as prime minister while he is on trial for multiple corruption charges. Many also object to his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Netanyahu is counting on his highly successful vaccination campaign to propel him to victory. Some three-quarters of the country’s adult population has been vaccinated in under three months, and the economy has reopened in recent weeks. But over 6,000 Israelis have died from COVID-19, the economy has been hard hit by repeated lockdowns, and unemployment remains in double digits. Many of the protesters have lost their jobs or seen their businesses suffer due to repeated lockdowns.

“It’s in our hands,” read a sign on a giant Israeli flag. “We are saving the country. We are fighting corruption, we are the hope,” said another banner.

Opinion polls have forecast a tight race on Tuesday, with Netanyahu and his religious and nationalist allies struggling to secure a majority of seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament.

If the polls are correct, Israel could be facing weeks of horse-trading and even the possibility of an unprecedented fifth consecutive election in just over two years.

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