JERUSALEM—Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t held anything back.
Over the last year he’s flashed Israelis with racist taunts, and he’s heaped contempt on the system that made him and kept him in power for longer than any other Israeli prime minister. Like Donald Trump, he’s mocked his opponents with schoolyard nicknames.
Indeed, Netanyahu often is compared to President Trump, with whom he shares a deep affinity and a close alliance. But “Bibi,” as he is known from Teaneck to Tel Aviv, more closely resembles Richard Nixon, he of the dark obsessions, mistrust, and electoral tricks.
Netanyahu seems to salivate over the imagined sexual peccadilloes of his rivals. He connived with a rabbi to make public the rabbi’s recordings of a private conversation with a troubled supplicant, who happened to be an adviser to Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s top rival.
Israel Bachar, the adviser, who faced a knot of personal problems, engaged in a long and winding discussion with Rabbi Guy Havura, whom he considered a confidant, occasionally veering toward politics. At one juncture, prodded by Havura, who was secretly recording the meeting, Bachar said Gantz “hasn’t got the courage to attack Iran.”
Netanyahu shrugged off any suggestion of impropriety connected to the release of the tape.
When Netanyahu was caught cheating and stealing, Netanyahu accused his accusers of attempting a coup d’état.
He grinned and defied army commanders who gravely warned him about the dangers of annexing the West Bank—one of his campaign promises—and lied, naturally and often, to his citizens.
On election day, Netanyahu posted a doctored video of Gantz seeming to speak nonsense. All in good fun! And no one cared when, hours later, Israel’s Electoral Commission ordered the fabricated video deleted and fined Netanyahu’s Likud party $2,000.
He has now led his country into two fruitless electoral campaigns that failed to result in governments because, like Tarzan hanging from a vine, Netanyahu simply can’t let go.
Netanyahu at 70 already is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Had he relinquished power at any point in the past 15 months, since he first announced elections, Israel would have plodded on, led by one or another of his less showy successors.
But with a stranglehold on the Likud, the party he’s now led for almost three decades, and with an uncanny ability to exploit the weak points of Israel’s disorderly parliamentary democracy, Bibi endures.
On Monday night, the bad boy who mesmerizes Israelis did it again, manfully striding across the stage of his party’s election night event like a Levantine Juan Domingo Perón, lifting his arms in the air and exulting in what he called the “greatest victory of my life.”
It is the third time Netanyahu has declared victory in under 11 months, and the third time his party faithful loyally whip huge flags in front of the television cameras, while dutifully bellowing some new version of the Likud party’s anthem.
But by Tuesday morning the stark fact emerged that for now—as in both of the previous elections—Netanyahu has yet to secure a governing majority.
That didn’t prevent the radiant Bibi of Monday night from listing some of the schemes he hopes to enact in his first few days in office as the crowd responded by calling back, “Mandelblit go home!”
Avichai Mandelblit is Israel’s attorney general, who concluded last November after two years of police investigations that he had to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate criminal cases involving his attempts to influence the media and sway policy on behalf of powerful friends in exchange for prohibited gifts and benefits.
An enraged Netanyahu responded at the time that Mandelblit, whom he had appointed, was spearheading an illegal rebellion aimed at overthrowing his legitimately elected right-wing régime.
Of course, Netanyahu’s raw, livid performance left a greater imprint on Israelis than had Mandelblit’s measured announcement of what he called “crimes without precedence for an Israeli prime minister.”
At this point, who knows if Netanyahu is “the prime minister-elect,” as his aides keep calling him in riposte to all those who insisted on referring to him over the past year as “the outgoing prime minister”?
But what’s certain is that the campaign’s final days provided rapt Israelis with a line-up of Broadway-worthy cabarets night after night.
Last week, Yair Netanyahu the prime minister’s 28-year-old son, a quasi-professional troll, tweeted out what he called the "crazy revelation" that Iran hacked the smartphone of his father’s rival, Benny Gantz, a centrist who is a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
Iran, Yair wrote, has “videos he sent to his mistress in America, of him pleasuring himself... that could be used to blackmail Gantz & the State of Israel if he's elected Prime Minister.”
The masturbatory theme was immediately picked up by Netanyahu, the prime minister, who spent a day warning Israelis that “you cannot be prime minister if you’re in the position to be blackmailed by Iran.”
While claiming that he had no interest in the personal life of any candidate, Bibi said, “The Israeli prime minister faces great pressure—and Gantz can't face the pressure of a debate. The Israeli prime minister cannot be subject to Iranian blackmail. It's worth asking Gantz what's out there.”
There is, of course, no evidence that Gantz, his smartphone, or his sex life have been compromised in any way, but the question, and the image, had been firmly implanted in Israel’s collective imagination.
It’s a common maneuver for Netanyahu père et fils, who often work in tandem. In October, Yair referred to the only man who dared run against his father in a Likud primary as “a rapist”; called his parents' former spokesman, who turned state’s witness against Netanyahu when he was implicated in the corruption cases, “scum who murdered a soldier”; and said the Israeli police, who investigated his father, are “a gestapo.”
Last week, while Yair Netanyahu was tweeting out the picture of a young animals rights activist, Dana Cassidy, implying she was Benny Gantz’s lover, drawing thousands of rabid alt-right internet attacks against her, Benjamin Netanyahu was busy cooking up a different scheme, with the rabbi, whose bombshell recordings were revealed on Thursday.
On Friday, in more than a dozen interviews, Netanyahu denied having any contact with Havura. “No way! No way! What nonsense!” he erupted at Moran Azoulay, one of the reporters who asked.
On Sunday, when yet another leaked recording revealed Netanyahu’s low baritone approving Havura’s plans to release the tapes, “with the voice undisguised,” the Israeli public seems to have been too confused, or too enthralled by Netanyahu’s blazing audacity, to care.
On Monday night, Netanyahu promised his supporters that he’d move efficiently to “impose sovereignty over our homeland in Judea and Samaria”—the biblical term for the West Bank—"eliminate the Iranian threat, safeguard the defense alliance with the United States, and establish peace with Arab states.”
Basking in his own success, he said “this is a time for reconciliation,” without specifying with whom.
But the portion of the public calling out for Mandelblit to go home knows, and approves, of Netanyahu’s real priority: to make every effort to scuttle his trial, which is scheduled to open on March 17 in Jerusalem’s old District Court.
In recent days, Netanyahu said he has “uncovered many problematic facts about Mandelblit,” who Netanyahu is expected to fire as a first measure if he secures a majority.
Two of Netanyahu’s ministers already have outlined more radical attempts to help Netanyahu evade the legal maw he is about to enter. First, a law securing retroactive immunity by prohibiting the prosecution of a sitting head of government. Second, and more radical, the passage of a law granting the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the ability to override supreme court decisions, thus, in effect, granting any leader who sits atop 61 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, something approaching unchecked power. In that, he may well resemble Trump.
As of late Tuesday, Netanyahu remained more or less where he’s been for the past year: two seats away from that goal.
President Reuven Rivlin's office says he should receive official election results by March 10, then: "The president has seven days to hold consultations and to arrive at a decision, no later than 17 March 2020"—the very day Netanyahu's corruption trial opens.