As his supporters chanted “Bibi, King of Israel” for the third time, Bibi, as former prime minister and leader of the conservative Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu is popularly known, clarified from the stage: “I am not a king, I have to to be elected… And I was there with your votes!” It was Wednesday morning in Jerusalem when the exit polls were already pointing to a victory, bolstered by the test returning to power after just a year and a half, against the man who Israel has ruled the longest: 15 of the country’s 74-year history, longer than founding father David Ben-Gurion. Accused of three counts of corruption, loathed by old allies and called a liar by new ones, the 73-year-old king has pulled his umpteenth rabbit out of the hat and won a comfortable majority of 65 of the 120 seats in parliament, the Knesset.
In the “Bibi” elections, yes; Bibi, no,” Israel voted yes. Actually only 50% of the country, but Netanyahu benefits from the fact that many counter-bloc ballots went to parties that remain without parliamentary representation by not exceeding the necessary threshold of 3.25% of the vote.
The Likud wins the elections, rising from 30 to 32 seats, while the three allied lists “Religious Zionism, from the far right; and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Torah United Jewry – together make 33. Israel is thus breaking the political deadlock that has led it to the polls five times since 2019.
A Likud supporter celebrates the results of exit polls in Jerusalem on Tuesday Tsafrir Abayov (AP)
One of the first consequences of the bloc victory is that the number of women MPs in the government will drop from 30 to nine, mainly because the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have 19 of the 65, only have men on their lists.
Netanyahu first came to power in 1996, a year after Isaac Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultra-nationalist for signing the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. He did so as the youngest Prime Minister (46) and firstborn in the State of Israel. In 1999 he was defeated by Labor’s Ehud Barak.
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As a polarizing figure, of whom his followers speak with traits of a personality cult, he embodies like no other the image of a strong leader in a country surrounded by enemies that is so popular in Israel and does not accept lessons from the world. However, his harsh speech does not always match his actions, such as when he freed Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin after a Mossad fiasco in Jordan in 1997 or traded soldier Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011.
Netanyahu has been instrumental in building Israel into a Western-backed economic, military and technological powerhouse, weathering global financial crises admirably and baffling at the pace of Covid vaccinations. All with the occupation of Palestine in the background. Indeed, two of its great achievements are the establishment of diplomatic relations with four Arab countries without giving up an inch of territory and the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital.
Between 2009 and 2021, Netanyahu captivated governments by flaunting his specialty: swimming and putting away clothes. He defended at the UN the creation of a Palestinian state in the face of pressure from Barack Obama, without lifting a finger to make it happen. He modulated his speech, switching friends and foes to maintain power until he resorted to an excuse to break the rotation agreement at the head of government he had with Benny Gantz.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands with US President Barack Obama at a meeting to resume peace talks in 2009 in New York.Pool (Getty Images)
“He is the only Prime Minister who, when faced with the dilemma of making a decision that serves his personal interests or the State of Israel, chooses the former. Not because I hate Israel [sino porque] he has convinced himself that what is good for him and what is good for his country is the same,” stressed one of his main critics, political commentator Ben Caspit, in the Maariv newspaper in October.
One of their weak points is the lack of self-criticism. In his recently published autobiography, “Bibi, Meine Geschichte,” he doesn’t even mention the country’s worst civil disaster to occur during his tenure: the death of 45 people by an avalanche during a Jewish holiday on Mount Meron in 2021.
Another reason is the tendency to become victimized. “Why is Israel treated like this? Why am I being treated like this? Why did I deserve this?” he lamented after a falling out with Bill Clinton during the 1998 Wye River Memorandum negotiation, says Anshel Pfeffer in his biography of Netanyahu Bibi (Hurst, 2018).
From left: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; Benjamin Netanyahu; King Hussein of Jordan; and the President of the United States; Bill Clinton in Washington in 1998. Larry Downing (Sygma via Getty Images)
This time, Netanyahu returns to power with a delicate saddlebag: religious Zionism. The list, made up of three parties with ultranationalist, racist and homophobic discourse, will foot the bill. She is responsible for the bloc’s victory, thanks to her jump from six to 14 MPs in just one year. List leader Bezalel Smotrich was greeted by his supporters chanting, “The new defense minister is here,” while number two, Itamar Ben Gvir, has made it public that he is running for national security portfolio, impeaching the police.
Ben Gvir, the ultra-sensation who managed to mark the content of debate in the campaign, defends the death penalty for “terrorists” (including those who throw Molotov cocktails) and expels “disloyal” citizens like those who throw stones, and grant immunity to soldiers and police officers. Until recently, he had in his living room a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the settler who killed 29 Palestinians by opening fire on a mosque in Hebron in 1994.
Itamar Ben Gvir, left, after exit poll results were announced this Tuesday in Jerusalem. CORINNA KERN (Portal)
Aware of the chills Ben Gvir is causing in part of his country, Netanyahu opted for reconciliation in his commemorative speech to the nearly 200 supporters who remained at 3am. He said he intends to form a government that “looks after all of its citizens without exception” — which includes the Arab minority who are in the crosshairs of religious Zionism — and that will pursue “balanced and responsible policies.” “It’s clear that people want a change. He doesn’t want weakness, he wants strength, and he wants to give back national pride and a Jewish state,” he said between chants like “Bibi come back!”, “Bibi strong!” and “Bibi, king of Israel!”
Lawyer and columnist Nadav Haetzni pointed out in the Israel Hayom newspaper on Tuesday that a 100 percent right-wing coalition like the one left by this election is Netanyahu’s “biggest nightmare” and that’s why he’s always tried to have someone who would his left in the government takes care of that. “The only reason he wants it now is the theoretical possibility that it will allow him to have his trial dismissed,” he argued, referring to the three corruption counts he faces. His detractors take it for granted that he longs to regain power in order to pass a law that will protect him while he is in office. The leader of religious Zionism also proposes stripping the Supreme Court of most of its powers, to the point that the Knesset can approve a law it has declared unconstitutional by a simple majority. Also eliminate one of the crimes attributed to Netanyahu.
The big loser is the broad coalition that ousted Netanyahu in the 2021 elections, led by centrist Yair Lapid. It falls to 50 seats, despite the advance (from 17 to 24) of Yesh Atid, Lapid’s formation. She is the only one on the bloc to grow, along with the United Arab List, which is up five (one more) to confirm its decision to become the first representative of the Palestinian minority with Israeli citizenship to enter the government since the founding of the country in 1948.
All others fall, including two former Netanyahu associates who switched sides. National Unity, led by Defense Secretary Benny Gantz, reduces its presence to 12, and Israel Beitenu, under Treasury chief Avigdor Lieberman, loses two to remain at five. Historic Labor Party goes from seven to four, the minimum. Its leader, well-known journalist Merav Mijaeli, has failed to elevate the formation that has led the country for the first three decades from oblivion.
Merav Mijaeli, with her hair tied back, hugs one of her constituents, in Tel Aviv last Tuesday DPA via Europa Press
These are difficult times for Meretz’s pacifist left, which entered government in 2021 after two decades in opposition. He is close to the 3.25% threshold of the vote to enter the Knesset, but the chances of him exceeding it are slim. For the first time in her history, she will step down from parliament, a blow to veteran Zehava Gal-On, who took the lead to revitalize a party still riddled with stigma and power struggles.
“Until the last ballot”
A girl helps her mother vote in Jerusalem last Tuesday Ronen Zvulun (Portal)
In an electoral system like Israel’s, the result can change up to the last ballot, as Prime Minister Yair Lapid emphasized on Tuesday evening. Neither the calculation started this Thursday of half a million “double envelopes” – which are deposited, among other things, by soldiers on military bases, diplomats or prisoners – nor the distribution of the so-called “surplus votes” will succeed Turn the map politically. Religious Zionism gains an extra seat, while the Arab Balad party retains a few tenths of 3.25%, which would have given it four MPs and rebalanced the balance of power.
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