Benjamin Netanyahu, the consummate survivor of Israel’s vicious politics, spent Tuesday warning his fractured rightwing base that he was about to lose the most crucial election of his three-decade political career.
It turns out he was not just crying wolf to rally votes — by midnight, the aura of invincibility that has kept his three back-to-back premierships afloat for a decade was shattered. Twice in six months, Israelis have denied the man they call Bibi, and his fans call King Bibi, a resounding return to the prime minister’s office.
Instead, exit polls showed Mr Netanyahu trapped within a fractured landscape that he himself helped create. Arab-Israelis, angered by his constant demonisation, voted more than a dozen lawmakers into the Knesset, while secular rightwing Israelis questioned the bonds between a confident Zionism and Judaism. At the same time, the deeply devout ultraorthodox, perhaps the wiliest of political operators, found themselves pushed aside by a secular, rabble-rousing Russian migrant, Avigdor Lieberman, who delights in breaking the sabbath.
The exit polls, which still need to be confirmed by an official count, leave Mr Netanyahu isolated from his traditional allies, and fighting for his legacy — and possibly, his personal freedom. With a possible indictment for corruption lurking around the corner, he can’t afford to be out of power while fending off the charges, a conviction would send him to jail, just like his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Hoarse from a day spent shouting dire warnings into a megaphone, he soldiered through a defiant, 3am speech before a conspicuously empty hall, calling the Arab parties, which now make up the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, “supporters of terrorists”, and bragging about his friendship with US President Donald Trump.
“We will enter negotiations to create a strong, Zionist government, in order to avert the dangers of an anti-Zionist one,” he vowed, without acknowledging the results of the polls. Latest figures have his Likud party either trailing or tied with the neophyte Blue and White Party, leaving the rightwing bloc he presides over five seats short of a majority.
What follows next will test Mr Netanyahu’s political instincts to the fullest. To come are fractious coalition talks with politicians he has spent a year deriding as weak traitors to the Zionist cause. The same people have worked in tandem with a spurned ally who suddenly are holding him hostage with less than a dozen seats in the 120-member Knesset.
That one-time ally, Mr Lieberman, himself a recent convert to the prospect of an Israel without Netanyahu at the helm, suggested the period will be messy. “I’ve been through such periods before, and every day, every hour, every few hours, we’ll be seeing something else in the news: this one met with that one in the dead of night, this one talked to that one, they met, there are talks,” he told supporters in Jerusalem. “Whatever you read, don’t believe it.”
That’s a battlefield where Mr Netanyahu has long excelled, shuffling coalitions with pragmatic flexibility in four prior premierships. In his favour are signed pledges of loyalty from nearly all Likud lawmakers, who have vowed to back him despite the possible corruption charges.
That makes it extremely difficult for him to be ousted by internal Likud rivals, who have waited years for him to stumble, said Ran Baratz, a former adviser to Mr Netanyahu.
“There is no institutional mechanism to do such a thing in Likud,” said Mr Baratz, a former adviser to Mr Netanyahu.
But the lines that now divide Israeli society preclude any alliance with the ultraorthodox parties that will also give Mr Netanyahu a parliamentary majority. Further, if Blue and White gets the first chance to form a coalition, it makes his task harder.
“Netanyahu’s fate has been sealed tonight,” the influential political commentator Amit Segal said. “The countdown to the end of the Netanyahu era has begun.”
One scenario being discussed within Likud was enticing Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White, to join forces with his dozen or so members of parliament to Likud, perhaps in exchange for a rotating leadership with Mr Netanyahu, or a deputy prime ministership, said one person who has spoken to Mr Netanyahu recently about his plans.
While Mr Gantz has offered a warmer demeanour and less abrasive personality, on matters of national security and the Palestinian issue, he is not dissimilar to Mr Netanyahu. He launched his campaign earlier this year bragging about bombing parts of the Gaza Strip “into the stone age”.
“There is a natural partnership there,” said one Likud insider.
It is a gambit that has worked in the past for Mr Netanyahu. He convinced former prime minister Ehud Barak to split away from the Labour Party in 2011 with enough of his loyalists to keep a prior Netanyahu government afloat.
But that was near the end of Mr Barak’s political career, while Mr Gantz’s is just beginning. Among the soldiers he has commanded, and the activists he spurred to two strong back-to-back showings in this year’s elections, Mr Gantz is celebrated for his perceived loyalty.
“Benny is not going anywhere,” said one of his advisers. “He’s waited a long time to be prime minister, and Netanyahu has been prime minister for a long time. He knows the rules of the game.”
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