TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - Israel's ruling Likud Party kicked off a rally on Wednesday in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in what it hopes will be a show of force by the beleaguered Israeli leader as he battles a slew of corruption allegations.
Likud leaders were putting heavy pressure on party activists to attend the rally on Wednesday evening in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of supporters packed a Tel Aviv convention center ahead of Netanyahu's expected speech. Some supporters held signs and chanted "Bibi, King of Israel," using the prime minister's nickname.
Party leaders described it as an attempt to counter a vicious campaign by a hostile media and overzealous police and state prosecution. But the gathering was also serving as a test of Netanyahu's popularity and control over his party.
Coalition whip David Bitan, one of Netanyahu's strongest backers, said he organized the rally because the prime minister is being "persecuted" by the media and an opposition unable to defeat Netanyahu at the ballot box. Hundreds of party faithful were expected.
"This gathering is important to unify the ranks in the party in support for the prime minister and raise the morale of party activists," he told Army Radio. "There is a really difficult feeling in the Likud. There is a feeling that things are not being conducted fairly and the influence of the left on the process is serious."
Netanyahu, the second-longest serving leader in Israeli history, is engulfed in a series of scandals relating to alleged financial misdeeds and supposed illicit ties to executives in media, international business and Hollywood.
Israeli police investigators say they suspect Netanyahu of being involved in bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a pair of cases.
Netanyahu's former chief of staff and longtime confidant, Ari Harow, recently signed a settlement connected to a separate case in which he agreed to testify against his former mentor. This has raised speculation that Netanyahu could be indicted soon, and has sparked opposition calls for him to step down.
Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and called the accusations a witch hunt.
Bitan said some 1,500 were signed up for the event and he hoped even more would attend — including all the party's top officials and ministers. Netanyahu is expected to address the gathering, as long as the turnout is as impressive as hoped.
No one in the party has come out against Netanyahu yet — reflecting both loyalty and the fear of crossing him.
Netanyahu's primary potential heir, Cabinet minister Yisrael Katz, has said he will attend the event and is expected to offer broad backing. A close eye will be kept on those who skip it.
Internal criticism has emerged only from those outside of politics. Limor Livnat, a former Likud Cabinet minister, has condemned the attacks on the police and prosecution and said that Netanyahu should step aside if indicted.
Israel's justice minister has said Netanyahu would not have to step down even if he is indicted. That means his short-term future will likely depend on whether he can maintain political and public backing.
Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said there is no immediate threat and the goal of Wednesday's rally was to quash any thoughts of trying to challenge him.
"Netanyahu is tightening the bolts and exerting his authority," he said. "The whole point it to scare any of the 'pretenders' against getting ideas in their head. He's conveying that he is still powerful and everyone should keep their knives holstered."
Netanyahu has escaped several scandals before, but the scope of the latest accusations appears to pose his stiffest challenge yet.
One investigation involving Netanyahu, dubbed by police as "File 1000," reportedly concerns claims he improperly accepted lavish gifts from wealthy supporters, including Australian billionaire James Packer and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.
The second investigation, "File 2000," reportedly concerns Netanyahu's alleged attempts to strike a deal with publisher Arnon Mozes of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper group to promote legislation to weaken Yediot's main competitor in exchange for more favorable coverage of Netanyahu by Yediot.
A third investigation, "File 3000," relates to a possible conflict of interests involving the purchase of German submarines, in which Netanyahu's cousin and personal attorney represented the German firm involved in the deal.
Netanyahu has dismissed the suspicions as "background noise" and vowed to push forward.