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Golden 'King Bibi' statue causes guerrilla-art stir in Israel
















TEL AVIV (Reuters) - A gilded statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dubbed "King Bibi" by its creator, stirred condemnation from Israel's culture minister and was toppled by an onlooker after a brief public appearance on Tuesday.

Sculptor Itay Zalait told reporters he had placed the four meter (13 foot) tall effigy of Netanyahu on a white pedestal in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, adjacent to city hall, to test the limits of freedom of expression in Israel.

The Israeli government and artists have been locked in a so-called "culture war" over steps by Culture Minister Miri Regev to withhold state funds from institutions that do not express loyalty to the state.

Posting on Facebook after the guerrilla-art sculpture was erected, Regev called it an "expression of hatred towards Netanyahu". Tel Aviv municipal officials ordered Zalait to remove the statue and said they would haul it away and fine him if he refused.

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Morning commuters gathered to snap photos and debate whether the statue should be seen as mockery of Netanyahu or homage to the right-wing prime minister, now in his fourth term and known by his childhood nickname "Bibi".

One woman bowed down in jest in front of the figure, which Zalait said took him three months to sculpt.

"In the social media, there have been tens of thousands of comments about 'King Bibi'," Zalait said on Army Radio when asked what had inspired him to create the statue.

"I simply made it a reality and put it in its deserved place, the Kings of Israel Square," he said, referring to the plaza's name before it was changed to honor Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated by an ultranationalist Jew during a peace rally there in 1995.

Passer-by Nina Lobel said the portrayal of Netanyahu was "horrendous" and the artist had wanted "to show him as a dictator".

Shortly after city hall's deadline for the statue's removal expired, a man in the crowd pushed "King Bibi" to the ground. It made a soft "clink" as it hit the pavement and the artist, who seemed amused, took it away, still in one piece, on a truck.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara have drawn legal scrutiny and frequent headlines over whether state funds have been used to support what critics decry as their lavish lifestyle.

Both have denied any misuse of taxpayers' money.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche)