Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared poised to win the country’s national election and secure a record fifth term in office Wednesday after months of scrambling to remain in power by striking deals with far-right extremists, promoting conspiracy theories, sidling up to authoritarian leaders and promising new restrictions on Palestinian rights.
The race was incredibly tight and Netanyahu still faces the task of cobbling together a coalition government.
His Likud party appears to have won just over 26 percent of the vote with nearly all the ballots counted, giving Netanyahu a clearer path than any other party leader to building a parliamentary majority. Israel President Reuven Rivlin will very likely choose him to form the next government once all the votes are in.
Netanyahu began his fifth reelection campaign with a clear road to victory, facing a fractured opposition and looking like a strong bet to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. But that soon changed. And as his reelection came under threat, he led a campaign that stoked division to save himself.
Weeks before the vote, two of Netanyahu’s challengers, including former military officer Benny Gantz, created a centrist opposition party that soon was neck and neck with Netanyahu’s Likud party in the polls. Long-running corruption investigations into Netanyahu then reached their climax with Israel’s attorney general announcing he would soon formally indict the prime minister.
Facing a close race and the looming indictment, Netanyahu exploited every opportunity to rally his supporters to put him over the finish line, no matter the cost.
Although he has a history of eking out election victories by playing on voters’ fears, such as warning in 2015 that Israel’s Arab citizens were casting their ballots “in droves,” Netanyahu reached new lows during this year’s campaign. On Election Day, his party reportedly distributed around 1,200 hidden cameras to observers in Arab communities in what critics described as a deliberate act of voter suppression.
Prior to that, Netanyahu reached an agreement with racist and homophobic far-right parties in February to prop up his reelection bid, promising one party key government positions in exchange for supporting his premiership. One group, Jewish Power, has its roots in a violent anti-Muslim movement that the U.S. government deemed a terrorist organization. A prominent Israeli correspondent likened the agreement to a U.S. president striking a deal with the Ku Klux Klan.
The deal with the far right drew widespread condemnation both in Israel and abroad, earning rare rebukes even from conservative, staunchly pro-Israel organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying group. The Anti-Defamation League said the deal “legitimized” the party’s “hate-filled rhetoric,” and Gantz accused the prime minister of sacrificing his dignity. But Netanyahu was only getting started.
The prime minister’s career is pockmarked with scandals: In his first term as prime minister, he was investigated for influence peddling and improperly accepting foreign gifts and contributions. But the looming indictment, a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister, is the most serious yet.
In the final months of his campaign, Netanyahu relentlessly pushed to convince voters that he was synonymous with the Israeli state and that the corruption scandals circling his family were leftist conspiracies. Borrowing the same rhetoric that U.S. President Donald Trump and radical right-wing populist leaders use to dismiss the press and avoid accountability, he painted nearly anyone who opposed him as a leftist — even the centrist Gantz, whose campaign video boasts about the number of alleged terrorists he killed during an Israeli military offensive in Gaza.
Netanyahu called the criminal investigations focusing on him a “witch hunt,” and at the start of the year, gave a nationally televised address saying he was the target of a political plot. He threatened to sue his political rivals for libel and tweeted Fox News clips of Sean Hannity praising his leadership.
The prime minister’s family, also a focus of corruption investigations, got involved as well. Netanyahu’s wife Sarah, who was indicted last year for fraud and breach of trust, attacked journalists as leftists working for political opponents. Meanwhile, the couple’s son Yair claimed the Israeli president was trying to oust his father. Facebook temporarily suspended the 27-year-old’s page earlier this year after he repeatedly posted anti-Muslim hate speech.
Netanyahu also tried hard to position himself as an international statesman, but his recent foreign visitors included populist, nationalist far-right leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who often promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and authoritarian Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Netanyahu also visited Russian President Vladimir Putin last week and met with Trump.
The U.S. president is exceedingly popular in Israel and was a continual presence in Netanyahu’s campaign, which bought giant billboard ads around the country showing the two leaders shaking hands. Netanyahu touted their relationship as proof of his influence, celebrating the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem and Trump’s support for Israel declaring permanent control over the Golan Heights ― which critics say would violate international laws on declaring sovereignty over occupied territory. Netanyahu also claimed that Trump labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist group at his request.
After spending months playing up his nationalist credentials and courting the far right at the cost of Palestinians and the rule of law, Netanyahu saved one of his biggest announcements for last in an attempt to rally right-wing voters. Days before the vote, he promised that if reelected, he would begin annexing parts of the West Bank. The move, a breach of the Oslo Accords peace agreement, would drastically undermine the two-state solution and solidify Israel’s occupation of areas Palestinians demand for their own state.
Netanyahu ultimately gambled correctly on his rightward shift, and could continue to lead for years if his corruption scandal doesn’t unseat him or his tentative coalition doesn’t fall apart. His campaign was both a template for how populist and nationalist leaders can find ways to stay in power, and potentially a glimpse at the direction Netanyahu plans to take Israel.