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Thousands protest in Israel against Netanyahu-Gantz unity government

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv denounce unity deal as manoeuvering by Netanyahu, who is facing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust
Israeli man wearing protective mask lifts placard at rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday (AFP)

Thousands of Israelis demonstrated on Saturday to protest a deal struck earlier this week between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and parliament speaker Benny Gantz to form a unity government.

The protesters rallied in the coastal city of Tel Aviv to denounce Monday's deal as manoeuvring by Netanyahu, who is facing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.

The protesters oppose Netanyahu being the prime minister as long as he is a criminal suspect, as they argued that the unity agreement gives the premier influence over the appointment of judges and legal officials, “crushes democracy” and is meant to rescue him from his legal troubles, Haaretz reported.

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Israeli media reported that about 2,000 demonstrators took part in the protest. They wore face masks and observed social distancing rules to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The protesters, many dressed in black and waving black flags, chanted against "corruption" and for "safeguarding democracy".

They held up signs that read: "The people against the government," and waved Israeli flags.

A protest organised by the same group of activists last Sunday had a turn-out of thousands and received worldwide coverage. “We are determined to protect democracy. We the citizens have to lead,” organisers told Haaretz.

Monday's deal ended a 16-month political deadlock in Israel and will see Netanyahu serve as prime minister for the first half of a three-year term as he faces trial on corruption charges, which he denies.

Gantz, his former election rival and an ex-general, will serve as defence minister before taking on the premiership in October next year, with new elections to be held 18 months later.

Netanyahu and Gantz had tried multiple times in recent months to form governments, but neither could summon the necessary support in Israel's 120-seat legislature to do so successfully - until Monday evening.

In January Netanyahu was formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, becoming the first Israeli premier ever indicted in office.

His trial had been due to open in March but was postponed until 24 May.