In what appear to be the last days of his historic 12-year reign, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not quietly leaving the political scene.
The longtime leader accuses his opponents of betraying their constituents, and some have needed special security protection.
Netanyahu said he was the victim of a “deep state” plot. He speaks in apocalyptic terms when he talks about the country without his leadership.
“They uproot the good and replace it with the bad and the dangerous,” Netanyahu told conservative Channel 20 television this week. “I fear for the fate of the nation.
Such language has lasted for tense days as Netanyahu and his loyalists make a last, desperate effort to try to prevent a new government from taking office on Sunday. With his options exhausted, he also provided insight into Netanyahu as the leader of the opposition.
For those who have watched Netanyahu dominate Israeli politics for much of the past quarter century, his recent behavior is familiar.
He frequently describes threats, large and small, in blunt terms. He demeaned his rivals and prospered using divisive tactics to rule. He describes his Jewish opponents as weak and loathing “leftists” and Arab politicians as a potential fifth column of terrorist sympathizers.
He regularly presents himself in grandiose terms as the only person capable of leading the country through its never-ending security challenges.
“Under his tenure, identity politics is at an all time high,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.
It is a formula that has served Netanyahu well. He led the right-wing Likud party with an iron fist for more than 15 years, racking up a string of electoral victories that earned him the nickname “King Bibi”.
He repelled pressure from President Barack Obama to make concessions to the Palestinians and publicly defied him in 2015 by delivering a speech in Congress against the US-led nuclear deal with Iran.
Although Netanyahu was unable to block the deal, he was richly rewarded by President Donald Trump, who recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, got out of the nuclear deal and helped negotiate diplomatic pacts between Israel and four Arab nations.
Netanyahu waged what appears to be a highly successful shadow war on Iran while keeping Israel’s long-standing conflict with the Palestinians to a slow boil, save for three brief wars with Hamas leaders in Gaza. .
The situation with the Palestinians today is “remarkably the same” as when Netanyahu took office, Plesner said. “No major changes in either direction, no annexation and no diplomatic breakthroughs.”
But some of Netanyahu’s tactics now seem to be coming back to haunt him. The new US administration Biden has been cold with the Israeli leader, while Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump has alienated large segments of the Democratic Party.
At home, Netanyahu’s magic also wore off – in large part because of his corruption trial. He attacked an ever-growing list of perceived enemies: the media, the judiciary, the police, the centrists, the leftists and even the die-hard nationalists who were once close allies.
In four consecutive elections since 2019, the once invincible Netanyahu has failed to secure a parliamentary majority. Faced with the unattractive possibility of a fifth consecutive election, eight parties have managed to assemble a majority coalition which is expected to take office on Sunday.
Israeli politics are generally divided between conciliatory left parties seeking a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and religious and nationalist parties – long led by Netanyahu – which oppose Palestinian independence. If any of the recent elections had focused on conflict, then only the right-wing parties would have formed a strong and stable majority.
But the Palestinians were hardly mentioned – another legacy of Netanyahu, who sidelined the issue.
Instead, everyone seemed to be talking about Netanyahu’s personality and his legal issues, which turned out to be deeply polarizing. The new government includes three small parties led by former Netanyahu aides who had bitter breaks with him, including alleged prime minister Naftali Bennett.
Bennett and his right-wing partners even broke a long-standing taboo on alliance with Arab parties. A little islamist party, which Netanyahu had also courted, will be the first to join a ruling coalition.
Netanyahu and his supporters in Likud have grown increasingly desperate. Initially, Netanyahu tried to lure some “defectors” from his former allies to prevent them from gaining a parliamentary majority.
When that failed, he resorted to language similar to that of his friend and benefactor Trump.
“We are witnessing the biggest electoral fraud in the country’s history,” Netanyahu said at a Likud meeting this week. He has long called the corruption trial a “witch hunt” fueled by “fake news”, and in the TV interview he said he was being hunted by the “deep state”.
His supporters staged menacing rallies outside the homes of lawmakers joining the new government. Some of the parliamentarians say they and their families have received death threats, and one said she was recently followed by a mysterious car.
Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners, meanwhile, presented Bennett as a threat to their religion, with one even calling on him to remove his kippah, the skullcap worn by observant Jews.
The online incitement by Netanyahu supporters has become so severe that several members of the new government have been assigned to bodyguards or even moved to secret locations.
Some Israelis have drawn comparisons to the tensions that led to the uprising on the United States Capitol in January, while others have pointed to the incitement to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
In a rare public statement, Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, recently warned of a “serious rise and radicalization of violent and inciting speech” on social media which he said could lead to violence.
Netanyahu condemned the incitement while noting that he too was a target.
Late Thursday, Netanyahu’s Likud Party issued a statement on Twitter in English saying his fraudulent comments did not target the vote counting process and that he had “full confidence” in it. “There is also no question about the peaceful transition of power,” he said.
Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, said she expects the coming months to remain volatile.
“We are going to see a very assertive and aggressive opposition leader, that is Netanyahu, determined to make this coalition of change short-lived and that we have another election as soon as possible,” she declared. added.
“We don’t even have the memory of what normal politics looks like,” Talshir said.