Thousands rally in support of Israel's Netanyahu after graft indictment

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Several thousand Israelis rallied on Tuesday in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he faces the gravest threat to his political survival after corruption charges and two failed elections.

Slideshow ( 14 images )

Held under the banner “Stop the Coup”, the protest failed to draw the huge crowds its organizers - members of Netanyahu’s Likud party - had hoped to attract and only a handful of the faction’s senior lawmakers and cabinet ministers attended.

Netanyahu was charged on Thursday with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies wrongdoing in all three of the criminal cases and has cast the investigations against him as an attempted coup aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader.

Israeli media put the number of demonstrators at about 2,000 to 3,000 people while Likud said 15,000 attended the rally.

“The legal establishment’s goal is to topple an elected prime minister,” said Ron Nahmani, 70, who had come to the protest. Addressing the crowd, Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar said the justice system was playing a part in a leftist conspiracy.

Netanyahu’s centrist rival Benny Gantz, who heads the Blue and White party said on Twitter: “In a healthy democracy, a prime minister does not organize a demonstration against the justice system.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who made the decision to charge Netanyahu, said that attacks on the legal system had gone too far.

“I’m hearing threats. I’m hearing baseless slander. It’s shocking,” Mandelblit said at a judiciary conference in southern Israel. Two of the lead prosecutors on the Netanyahu investigations have had to have bodyguards assigned to them, he said.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving leader and in power since 2009, presently heads a caretaker government after two inconclusive elections this year. He is not obliged by law to leave office over the charges and has vowed to stay in power.

But the indictment against him, the first of a sitting Israeli premier, has prompted calls from the center-left opposition for him to step down, and has stirred up a leadership challenge from within his Likud party. [L8N2854II]

Israel is facing unprecedented political turmoil after neither Netanyahu nor Gantz failed to form a coalition government following elections held in April and in September. With the political deadlock unresolved, Israel could be facing a third ballot within a few months.

Reporting by Rami Amichai in Tel Aviv; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich