Another Israeli Election Looms, and a Familiar Face Plans a Comeback

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BAT YAM, Israel — On paper, he is hardly the ideal candidate.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, was ousted 16 months ago — prompting political eulogies at the end of a 12-year run — and is still standing trial on corruption charges.

But as Israel gears up for another general election, its fifth in less than four years, Mr. Netanyahu, a seasoned political phoenix running this time from the opposition, appears better positioned than any of his rivals to lead the next government coalition.

“He’s the strongest political player, despite it all,” said Mazal Mualem, an Israeli political commentator and the author of a newly released biography of Mr. Netanyahu in Hebrew, “Cracking the Netanyahu Code.” “That he has survived till now is proof of his power,” she said. “Beyond being a politician, he is a social and cultural phenomenon.”

Still, despite the loyalty that he has enjoyed so far from his conservative party, Likud; from his political allies; and from supporters drawn to his messages emphasizing the country’s Jewish identity, Mr. Netanyahu remains a divisive figure in Israel and may nevertheless fail to deliver them a clear victory.

Pre-election opinion polls are showing an electorate almost evenly split between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, with Likud getting the most votes, but each side falling short of a majority. Some political analysts are already predicting a sixth election, most likely next spring.

Mr. Netanyahu, 73, universally known by his childhood nickname, Bibi, has not emerged from an election with a clear majority for Likud and its allies since 2015, as political polarization, paralysis and chaos have gripped the country.

His opponents have also been unable to build a stable coalition, with the government of Naftali Bennett collapsing this summer. Yair Lapid took over as the caretaker prime minister of a transitional government. His centrist Yesh Atid party is currently polling second after Likud.

While the recent election campaign has been marked by voter fatigue, Mr. Netanyahu has run an energetic race, flooding social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok with snappy videos and campaigning vigorously around Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu also used his time in the opposition to write an autobiography, “Bibi: My Story.” Published this month, the English version was instantly ranked as an Amazon best seller.

And he did not let up in his unrelenting efforts to bring down the last government, led by Mr. Bennett, which imploded after a year.

All of that has helped bolster support for him and his political allies. Many Israelis still view him as the most qualified candidate to handle the country’s security, diplomacy and economy.

Even his corruption trial, in which the Jerusalem District Court is slogging its way through a list of more than 300 witnesses, has earned him added sympathy and admiration from Israelis who agree with his claims that he has been “framed” by a liberal deep state, and the court proceedings have largely dropped from the public agenda.

One reason for Mr. Netanyahu’s success, according to Ms. Mualem and several current and former Netanyahu aides and strategists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, is his unrivaled domination of the social network realm. That allows him to bypass the mainstream media, which he has long viewed as biased, and speak directly to his public. Fluent in “Jewish language” and sentiment, Ms. Mualem said, he also manages to appeal to ultra-Orthodox voters, even though he is secular.

Mr. Netanyahu’s focus is on getting every Likud voter out on Election Day, after tens of thousands sat out the 2021 election or voted for other parties.

He asserted while on the campaign trail that internal polls were giving his tight bloc a fraction over 60 seats in Parliament, within touching distance of a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat legislature, though that would most likely mean forming a government with, and distributing ministerial positions to, the far-right Religious Zionism party, which is running on a joint slate with the extremist Jewish Power.

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The leader of Jewish Power, the ultranationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, recently pulled out a handgun during a campaign stop in a volatile East Jerusalem neighborhood and urged police officers to fire at local Palestinian stone-throwers.

The opposing, ideologically disparate bloc of disaffected conservative, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties would have a much muddier path toward forming a government, not only because it is trailing behind the pro-Netanyahu bloc, according to much of the latest polling, but also because some of the bloc’s parties would object to sitting in a coalition with others.

Hoping to win over soft-right waverers, Mr. Netanyahu has been less divisive than in the past, ceasing his attacks on the police and the judiciary and leaving that to some of his Likud stalwarts. Vilifying Arab politicians as “supporters of terrorism,” he emphasizes Israel’s Jewish identity and need for a Jewish government. But he has also been sending calming messages in Arabic to the Arab minority.

His campaign has also homed in on Likud strongholds where previous turnout has been low, with his “Bibi-mobile” — a converted removal truck with one side replaced by bulletproof glass through which he speaks to supporters — showing up at rallies (known as Bibi-Ba, for Bibi is Back) across the country.

This month, the Bibi-mobile turned up in a public park in Bat Yam, a mostly low-income Likud beach town south of Tel Aviv where voter turnout was under 50 percent in 2021.

The moment a screen lifted to reveal Mr. Netanyahu behind the bulletproof glass, the audience — mostly locals who had ambled down from their apartments, some in undershirts, sweatpants and flip-flops — was instantly energized.

“Good evening, Bat Yam!” Mr. Netanyahu boomed, on his third campaign stop of the night.

It took on a pantomime quality, as a heavily made-up Mr. Netanyahu asked the crowd if they wanted another year of Mr. Lapid’s Israeli-Palestinian government (“No!”) or if they wanted Israel back (“Yes!”). Mentions of the Lapid government, which includes Ra’am, a small, Islamic party, elicited boos.

As the crowd chanted, “Bibi, King of Israel!” Mr. Netanyahu moved on to a fourth stop, in another park across town. “Good evening, Bat Yam!” he boomed, as if it were his first time.

Sara Brand, 73, a local resident, said she used to vote for the center-left Labor Party but went over to Likud because of the trial and what she called a media “crusade” against Mr. Netanyahu.

Hai Bachar, 29, a security guard, said: “We are a Jewish, Zionist state. The left are enemies of Israel. They can’t be in government.”

Research by Moshe Klughaft, a strategist who met with Mr. Netanyahu several times during this campaign, shows that many undecided voters are less concerned with personality than with the need for stable government and the high cost of living. Mr. Netanyahu is promising that a good turnout will guarantee “four years of stable, right-wing government,” and has pledged to introduce free day care for infants and children up to age 3 in a new “Bibi-sitter” video.

If Mr. Netanyahu does return to the prime minister’s office, his detractors worry most that he and his loyalists will make fundamental changes to the judicial and democratic system aimed at canceling his trial.

“The plan is absolutely to replace the attorney general,” said Ben Caspit, an Israeli political commentator and two-time biographer of Mr. Netanyahu. “They are saying, ‘We aren’t coming to destroy the system, but to reform it and fix it.’”

Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party in Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc, has already announced a sweeping plan for change that would include canceling the offenses of fraud and breach of trust — two of the charges that Mr. Netanyahu is accused of, along with bribery — from the criminal code.

Mr. Netanyahu, who denies all wrongdoing, insists that any such change would not apply to him retroactively and that the case against him is collapsing in court. But to exclude him from such a legal amendment would require making him an exception under the law.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a veteran Likud lawmaker and former minister, said in an interview that if Mr. Netanyahu had wanted to save himself from his trial, he could have entered into a plea bargain with the authorities.

Mr. Netanyahu remains the leading candidate, Mr. Hanegbi said, because he retains a sense of mission, believing that Israel’s fate rests on his shoulders, and “because he wants it more than anybody else.”

Even if Mr. Netanyahu fails this time around, he may still remain unchallenged from within Likud. “There will be no problem if he wants to remain,” Mr. Hanegbi said. “He can stay for another 10 years if he wants.”


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