Amid the pounding music, steaming trays of traditional Moroccan treats and shimmering holiday dresses, the crowd started whispering at the Mimouna celebration in the northern city of Or Akiva on Saturday night.
“He’s here,” the crowd murmured, looking side-to-side to steal a glance at the big arrival to the traditional Moroccan celebration marking the end of the Passover holiday.
Former prime minister and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu strode into the home’s living room, where an ample dinner spread was waiting. He was accompanied by his wife, Sara, and a chant from the hundred-odd guests.
“Long live Bibi, King of Israel,” the crowd intoned, replacing the biblical leader David with Netanyahu’s nickname in a common religious chant.
From the place of honor in the center of a broad table, Netanyahu took to the microphone to tell the crowd that he would be back in power soon. Family members and friends of the dinner’s hosts, as well as activists from Netanyahu’s Likud party, angled to see and snap pictures.
“This year’s holiday has a new flavor, the flavor of hope, a lot of hope,” Netanyahu said.
“I meet a lot of citizens who are full of hope, who are hoping and believing that we’ll bring the Israeli government back on the right track, the secure track, the track that will promise security and attainment for all of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said.
“This is a Mimouna of faith and hope, and we’re coming back soon,” he said.
The attendees were predominately Likud supporters, and committed ones. The event had the feel of an early celebration party for a potential fight over control of the government.
Gabriel Hertzl, a Likud Central Committee member from the city of Rishon Lezion, shared his feeling of a renewed vigor within the Likud, since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition lost its Knesset majority before the Passover holiday, making a potential contest for power or new elections likely.
- Lawmaker Idit Silman, a member of Bennett’s Yamina party, quit the government earlier this month, stripping the coalition of its majority and leaving the Knesset deadlocked.
“I feel a new, strong wind in the Likud for toppling the government,” Hertzl said. “I hope we’ll go to elections soon.”
Madmon Menachem, a Likud activist from the northern town of Pardes Hanna, agreed that “there’s a new energy building” against the imperiled coalition.
“It’s not strong enough yet,” Menachem said, “but it’s building, and that’s why I’m getting involved and I’m here tonight.”
A former mayor of Or Akiva, Simcha Yosipov, was also riding the wave of excitement.
“He’ll come back to become prime minister and I’ll be mayor,” Yosipov said of Netanyahu. “We’re coming back together. That’s what he told me.”
An onlooker could be confused as to whether Netanyahu had ever left the premiership. In addition to referring to him as former and future prime minister, Netanyahu was also addressed throughout the hour he spent at the event as, simply, “prime minister.”
Intermittent exclamations of, “We’re the tribe of Benjamin,” and, “Bennett, go home, you scoundrel,” also punctuated the event, which simultaneously felt like a blowout party and a campaign rally.
Netanyahu, who lives in nearby Caesarea, has long made an annual appearance at a Mimouna celebration in the nearby Likud stronghold of Or Akiva, a predominantly Mizrahi community.
“This is the first time we’ve hosted him for Mimouna,” said Shuli Malka, who arranged the evening in her Or Akiva home. “We really appreciate him and all of his efforts.”
Bennett attended a Mimouna celebration on Saturday night at a family home in the town of Shilat in central Israel.
“I want to tell everyone here and all of Israel — our nation is the strongest in the world when we’re together, when we are all as one,” Bennett said alongside other lawmakers from his Yamina party.
“The whole nation of Israel will celebrate Mimouna together and when the people of Israel are together, we will win,” he said.
- Israel went through four grueling elections in two years before Bennett’s fragile, disparate coalition took power last year.
- Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.