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Netanyahu has snake-charmed Israel for a decade, but have voters had enough of ‘King Bibi’?

Netanyahu has snake-charmed Israel for a decade, but have voters had enough of ‘King Bibi’?
If he wins Tuesday’s election, Benjamin Netanyahu is set to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. But as his tricks have grown hoarier and his persona more outsize than Trump himself, he risks becoming a self-caricature.

Final polls on Friday showed that his right-wing coalition was favored to reach the magic number of the 61 seats that would give them a majority in the Knesset, even if the prime minister’s own Likud party was not likely to be the biggest individual faction.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu has, predictably, been in his customary scuttling underdog mode. On Monday, he called an “emergency” cabinet meeting to declare that victory in the parliamentary election was not assured. So far no bombshells, like the homemade-quality video released on election day four years ago, in which he looked his voters  in the eye, and warned them that left-wing opponents were “bussing in Arabs” to vote for them and that there was still time.

The ace up his sleeve was the announcement that he was considering annexing the Jewish-settled parts of the West Bank – an idea that was long considered beyond the pale, and a sure death knell for the comatose peace process. The vague wording left it unclear if he is serious or just pandering to the Zionist parties that he will need for his majority.

Also on rt.com Israel could annex parts of West Bank in coming years – Netanyahu

Bibi vs. Benny

But, by and large, the bitter and vigorous campaign has not been fought on Palestinian issues, or on policy at all, but rather on which man Israel trusts to lead it through an always-volatile future. In stating his case, Netanyahu, whose election-trail skills are perhaps his strongest suit, has been as ubiquitous and domineering as ever. In fact, knowing his biblical self-belief, after two stints at the top, totaling 13 years, the 69-year-old would argue that he is more qualified now than at any time before.

And perhaps this is the twin problem. Bibi is both the status quo, but also Bibi is more Bibi than ever. Israel has reached Peak Bibi.

So all-engulfing has his personality been that his opposite number, Benny Gantz, spent time at rallies playing up his similarities to Netanyahu, thanking him for his historic role, before adding a little sheepishly that “enough is enough.” Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff (one of three on the opposition ticket) was picked both to match up with the incumbent Mr Security – note all of Netanyahu’s nicknames - but also to provide a wholesome contrast to the sleaze that has attached to the man in power and to his celebrity family. 59-year-old Gantz, a relative newcomer on the political scene says he is not defined by the prime minister, but can you imagine Netanyahu half-joking “Hey, my name is also Bibi” to lure his potential voters?

This has resulted in a campaign that lacks fire and congruence – Gantz has released a video boasting about “bombing Gaza back into the Stone Age” in his previous role, but also says that he is the last chance for peace in the region. All this might yet be enough.

Establishment populist

Before understanding why Netanyahu can be toppled, it is important to see why he achieved such iconic status in his homeland in the first place – something that his detractors abroad frequently fail to engage with.

Although he was being blamed for inflaming tensions as far back as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a far-right Zionist in 1995, his time came later.

As the Oslo Accords failed (despite all the international goodwill invested), as the Second Intifada from 2000 brought suicide bombers to Israeli cities and as the return of Gaza in 2005 resulted in the rise of Hamas, many Israelis, rightly or wrongly, lost any hope that a permanent peace can ever be concluded with the Palestinians. Netanyahu perfectly embodies this mood of new unashamed realism.

Despite what appeared to be an intractable geopolitical predicament, Israel’s economy has also grown prodigiously under him.

Also on rt.com Israeli troops to stay near Gaza, ready for ‘extensive campaign’ if needed – Netanyahu

Netanyahu also possesses an instinctive grasp of the existential concerns of Israelis. When he talks about the threat posed to the very essence of the Jewish State by a rising Arab population, or singularly blames PLO, Hamas or Hezbollah for every conflict that involves Israel, he represents the unvarnished opinions of the majority.

Netanyahu is a true populist – not the West’s marginalized provocateur figure – but in the classical sense, a solidly-supported politician who articulates the natural desires of his (exclusively Jewish) people for security, wealth and a proud identity. Although not his most frequent comparison, he is perhaps most similar to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, a man with whom he incidentally enjoys a particularly close relationship (and both of them loathe George Soros).

Super Trump

But Netanyahu is not without flaws – and this is where the Trump parallels work best.

The Israeli politician knew how to grab every headline years before Twitter was even a word, while simultaneously positioning himself as the nemesis of the mainstream media, whom he has repeatedly likened to North Korea.

Similarly, scandals dogged Netanyahu from the nineties – from admitting a love affair to accepting illegal gifts to abusing his power so as to receive positive media coverage. His son Yair has also repeatedly made the news for being more strident than his own father –despite boasting but a fraction of his dad's achievements– and for being mired in his own unseemly prostitution and nepotism episodes; his third wife Sara is unloved.

Also on rt.com Netanyahu campaign boosted by slander bots calling opponent 'mentally ill', 'gay', 'rapist' – report

All this was compartmentalized and accepted by his supporters as part of the package. But, whether emboldened by his track record, the emergence of other politicians in his mold on the world scene, or literally being egged on by Donald Trump’s steadfast support of Israel –in stark contrast to Barack Obama– Netanyahu has somehow grown wilder and more combative.

His choice phrases in recent TV appearances have been “fake news” and “witch hunt.” Much of his campaign was based on speculating about the consequences of Gantz –repeatedly called a “weak leftist”– being a security risk because his phone had been hacked by Iran. Another line of attack implied that Bibi's opponent was mentally unstable, with one video showing Gantz popping out of a cuckoo clock.

Israel’s big cities are plastered with Stalinesque posters of Netanyahu, often posing with other world leaders, particularly the US president himself. While becoming a world figure who crosses political divides is to be celebrated –the Israeli PM is an almost monthly guest in Moscow– the entire thing reeks of that familiar mix of ego and the need for validation, as well as an emerging personality cult.

While Donald Trump behaves like he does because he cannot be any other way, it is important to remember that Netanyahu was educated at Harvard and MIT, where he graduated top of his class, having by that point already been an elite unit commando. Why a man with such a first-class mind and military record needs to play the low-rent rabble-rouser is less obvious – it might be effective, but it is not particularly dignified, stakes always have to be raised to keep passions stirred.

Even for Trump fans, four years of The Donald is refreshing, eight years could be transformative, but imagine thirteen years of being in thrall to such a big personality, and electing him for another four. The baggage weighs heavier, the scion’s man-of-the-people act more wearying. Many –perhaps most– Israelis really have had their fill of the one-man show.

So, all in all, rather than morphing into a father-of-the-nation senior statesman, a David Ben Gurion or at least a Shimon Peres, Netanyahu stands on the verge of his eighth decade a more divisive figure than ever. Though, of course, if King Bibi is still on his throne on his anniversary, he will tell you that he was right, and you were wrong to doubt him.

Igor Ogorodnev

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