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Restaurateurs serve Netanyahu a 'final meal' as chaos mounts over Israel's coronavirus restrictions

The pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is building as quickly as the protests, with his official residence on Balfour Street now the focal point of protests that are growing in frequency and in size.

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Oren Liebermann
CNN — The pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is building as quickly as the protests, with his official residence on Balfour Street now the focal point of protests that are growing in frequency and in size.

The last protest was Tuesday night. The next is Thursday night, with more protests scheduled for the weekend. As public frustration with the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis soars, the anger fueling the demonstrations shows no sign of abating.

The protesters are angry for different reasons, but all of it is directed at Netanyahu. Gathering by the hundreds outside near Jerusalem's Paris Square, they block off streets and blow air horns. Economic protesters wave placards that say, "Netanyahu is choking us." Anti-corruption protesters hold signs that say, "crime minister."

Restaurateurs became the latest group to take part in the protests, angry over the changing rules and regulations about how -- and if -- they can operate, with banners that read, "this is the final meal."

On Friday morning, the cabinet issued an emergency order that restaurants had to close their doors to patrons that evening, with only takeout and delivery orders permitted. When restaurant owners complained that they had already purchased food stock for the weekend, the cabinet postponed the order. Instead, they were instructed to close early Tuesday morning.

By noon on Tuesday, however, a Knesset committee overruled the cabinet decision, and they could reopen with limited seating. The committee head said the decision was based on epidemiological data which she claimed showed restaurants are not a significant source of infection.

"If it wasn't so frustrating and sad, it would have been funny," said Itamar Navon, chef-owner at Mona restaurant in Jerusalem. Like many restaurant owners, Navon vowed to remain open, even if it meant defying a government directive. The changing rules -- and the frequency with which they change -- has become a major source of frustration for restaurants looking for clear guidance on how to operate.

"We're businessmen. We know how to work our business. We know how to calculate our models, but we need some answers," said Navon. "We can't have it that the government plays with us all day. And it really feels like they're playing with us and playing with each other instead of taking this crisis seriously."

Navon, along with members of the staff in his small, high-end restaurant, joined the protest outside Netanyahu's official residence, using food stock that would've gone to waste to prepare free meals to hand out to those rallying against the Prime Minister.

"The idea behind it is that because the government and the state don't take care of the people, then rather than just throwing it away, we will serve food to people who cannot afford it themselves, given the situation we have in the country right now," said Barak Aharoni, a chef at Tel Aviv's Alena restaurant, who came to hand out meals in Jerusalem Tuesday evening.

Prime Minister under pressure

The demonstration began outside the PM's residence before protesters marched towards the Knesset. Shortly after midnight when the permit for the demonstration expired, most of the protesters left the area, Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said to CNN.

Scuffles broke out between police and protesters who remained on scene. Police say they arrested 34 people for causing public disturbances. Israeli newspaper reports say they were all subsequently released.

Netanyahu finds himself with plenty to think about at present. His trial, on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, began about two months ago. He learned on Sunday that evidence would start being presented to the judges, and witnesses called to testify, from January. He has not yet entered a plea, and continues to deny all the accusations, ascribing his predicament to a media-led witch-hunt.

When the coronavirus crisis hit Israel in March, he put himself at the center of the government's response. He has taken credit for Israel's early success in containing coronavirus, even saying in mid-April he hoped Israel would be a model to the world in how to reopen safely.

But as the country finds itself in what officials have called a worsening second wave of infections, the public has largely blamed Netanyahu for the failures. From a high of 57.5% at the end of March, Israel's longest-serving leader has seen public trust in his leadership plummet to below 30% now, according to polling by the Israel Democracy Institute.

The daily rate of new coronavirus infections continues to hit records in Israel. Tuesday saw 1,977 new cases, bringing the number of active cases to 31,313, according to health ministry figures.

A total of 430 people have died from the disease in Israel since the start of the pandemic.

The PM has even found himself challenged by his own Likud party in the handling of coronavirus. His cabinet's decisions on regulations and closures have been repeatedly overruled and overturned by the Knesset Special Committee on Dealing with the Coronavirus, led by Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton.

In her role as head of the committee, Shasha-Biton defied the cabinet on Tuesday by allowing restaurants to open, after allowing beaches and pools to remain open earlier in the week.

Wednesday evening, Netanyahu, along with his health minister, appointed an outside figure to provide operational leadership to Israel's efforts to beat coronavirus, naming Ronni Gamzu, the head of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and director general of the Health Ministry from 2010-2014 as "national coronavirus project manager."

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