As the first ballots were counted, it appeared that the crown was about to slip from Benjamin Netanyahu’s head. His rival, Benny Gantz, a retired military chief and political newcomer, even claimed victory based on what he saw in exit polls. But by the end of night the man nicknamed “Bibi” was back in the ascendancy, virtually assured of a fifth term in office and a chance to become Israel’s longest-serving leader.
His Likud party now heads a ragtag pack of rightwing political groups — including ultraorthodox Jews, anti-Arab racists and free marketeers — that emerged large enough to form a governing coalition with up to 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
“You brought us an achievement beyond imagination, almost incomprehensible, despite a hostile media,” Mr Netanyahu told supporters.
Victory has cemented his reputation as an unrivalled political strategist, but also eases his next urgent campaign: fighting back against corruption allegations that could ultimately land him in jail.
The threat of an impending criminal indictment for corruption prompted Mr Netanyahu to take his first audacious gamble, which was to call early elections in December. It was an apparent bid to outrun the attorney-general in a two-year investigation that has placed Mr Netanyahu at the centre of a corruption scandal involving allegations of cosiness with tycoons, media manipulation and tales of champagne and cigars being traded for favours. Mr Netanyahu has denied the allegations.
Instead of shying away from the scandal, he met the investigation head on, transforming it into a rallying cry for his base.
In Mr Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, he was taking on a man with impeccable security credentials who had wooed centrist and left-leaning voters and offered hope to those who yearned for an end to the reign of “King Bibi”.
But Mr Netanyahu responded with a typically toxic strategy, launching relentless attacks on Arab leaders and the left — who he painted as Mr Gantz’s base — while avoiding policy discussions and eschewing the traditional media that he distrusts.
“He’s a political genius,” said Emmanuel Navon, a professor at Tel Aviv University and a fellow at the rightwing Kohelet Policy Forum. “He’s basically unbeatable — he has the dream coalition to stay on, even with an indictment.”
He also displayed a ruthlessness with his former coalition allies, seeking to win votes from rightwing luminaries Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, whose new pro-settler party appeared doomed to fall short of the 3.25 per cent of the vote required to enter parliament.
It was a risky move that boosted Likud to the second highest number of seats — 35 — that it has secured since the party was established.
Mr Gantz’s Blue and White party also garnered 35 seats but it lacks sufficient coalition partners in Israel’s fragmented political landscape, underscoring how the right has come to dominate Israeli politics on Mr Netanyahu’s watch.
The 69-year-old prime minister was relentless: on Tuesday he showed up at Israeli beaches, exhorting sunbathing supporters to go to the polls.
Idan Oron, a political adviser to a member of Blue and White, said Mr Netanyahu’s goal had been “delegitimising” the opposition. “In the last day, he made sure his supporters [were mobilised with] ‘god forbid the leftwing will establish a coalition’. My belief is that his largest crime is in the way he has divided and separated Israelis.”
Mr Netanyahu also cashed in on the largesse of his most powerfully ally, US president Donald Trump, who delivered the recognition of Israel’s claim to the Syrian Golan Heights and a red-carpet welcome at the White House just weeks before the elections. That was followed up with a trip to Moscow where the prime minister held talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Voters consistently praised Mr Netanyahu’s relationship with global leaders.
“Netanyahu ran a ruthlessly brilliant, no prisoners-taken campaign,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of Bibi, a biography of the Israeli prime minister. “No one else in the world, certainly no leader of a tiny country of 9m citizens, could have pulled off in the two weeks before elections a visit to the White House and a visit to the Kremlin.”
But arguably Mr Netanyahu’s biggest battle lies ahead. Within months, he will appear in front of the attorney-general to defend himself against allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. If he is indicted, which analysts say is very likely, Israel will enter uncharted territory with a leader distracted by legal woes. Court appearances and appeals could drag on into 2022.
Mr Netanyahu has vowed not to resign while he defends himself, and there is no legal precedent requiring him to. But one coalition ally, former finance minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party has said he believes the prime minister should resign if indicted.
Reuven Hazan, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said keeping the government together would be a significant challenge. “This is a clear beginning of Netanyahu’s fifth term, but his fifth term might end up being his shortest one.”
Mehul Srivastava and Andrew England, FT