Shouting and banging on tables abounded during a hearing in the Likud’s internal court Thursday on 14 party members who took part in the weekly demonstrations calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be indicted on corruption charges.Coalition chairman David Bitan, Likud legal adviser Avi Halevy and concerned party members petitioned against the protesters, many of whom are part of the “New Likudniks” group seeking to recruit members to the party to support moderate candidates in its primaries.They sought to revoke the protesters’ Likud membership; a ruling is expected in late October.The hearing was closed to press, but shouting could be heard from outside the room.The proceedings grew especially heated during an argument between Bitan and MK Yehudah Glick, who took the side of the protesters.“We’re going to kick them out because they want the party to be clean of corruption? That is absurd,” Glick said, adding that he believes Netanyahu is innocent and hopes he is proven to be soon.“I am here today to represent Voltaire... who said, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’” Glick said, repeating a quote that is commonly misattributed to the French philosopher. “That’s not in the party,” Bitan responded.Glick compared Bitan to King Louis XIV: “We have Bitan the 14th – the party is me! Whoever doesn’t agree with him can’t be in the Likud. I am very afraid of what is happening in the Likud.”Bitan said the demonstrations on Saturday night are backed by Labor and Meretz; Halevy argued that attending the rallies violates the Likud’s constitution, which states that someone may be removed from the party if he or she collaborates with another party to hurt the Likud. The attorney pointed to the attendance of left-wing politicians at the demonstrations, and the fact that they were an initiative of former Prime Minister’s Residence caretaker Meni Naftali, who sued Netanyahu.“A Likud member who attends a demonstration pressuring the attorney-general to indict the prime minister, at which banners were held stating ‘Netanyahu is guilty until proven innocent,’ not only violates the Likud constitution but the basic rules of fairness and justice,” Halevy said. “A Likud member who participated in this demonstration cannot continue being a Likud member.”Although the hearing was not about the New Likudniks as a group, Bitan attacked them as illegitimate.“The problem is their potential,” he said. “They can bring people from the Joint List, Labor or Yesh Atid and bring in 60,000 people and then there’s no party. So, because we’re democratic we won’t have a party left? Their basis for joining and their potential is problematic, and I ask the court to make a decision about this matter.”The New Likudniks, including the group’s leader Lior Meiri, argued that attending the demonstrations is part of their right to free speech.
A source on the defendants’ side argued, following the hearing, that the rallies are not left-wing, they are anti-corruption, and were not organized by a competing party. He also said that he “despises” Naftali and opposed efforts by Bitan to say that they were one group.“We are Likudniks, and we want the good of the Likud,” he said. “Bitan is trying to create an overlap between the chairman of the Likud and the Likud itself, so that if you criticize the prime minister, you criticize the Likud. We say the opposite. Criticizing the Likud or its MKs is legitimate and positive for the party, because we are democratic.”At the end of the hearing, the three judges suggested that the sides try to work out an agreement, but Bitan’s side categorically refused.