Observers may have baulked, but Bibi knew what he was doing. Benjamin Netanyahu, incumbent Israeli prime minister, has spent the past few days making alarmingly racist and intransigent statements – and as an election tactic, it worked.
It scrambled the forecasts of a closer race, because the polls, which closed on Friday, hadn’t factored in a margin for such successful, last-minute fear-mongering. Netanyahu’s hard-right Likud party has held a lead in the county’s polling booths and he is set to have secured a fourth (non-consecutive) term in office.
For weeks, Israeli analysts have been wondering if “King Bibi” had fallen sharply out of favour and the polls were all about a tightly contested battle between Likud and the main opposition bloc, the Zionist Union. But then along came Bibi’s turbo-charged, ultra-nationalist, hate-filled fear-mongering – and it shifted the picture, stemmed the flow.
In the past few days, Netanyahu made clear his outright rejection of a Palestinian state – verbalising what has for some time been his policy in practice. He admitted to green-lighting a major Israeli settlement specifically to thwart any possible Palestinian expansion around the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
Then he posted a full-throttle Facebook tirade against what he described as anti-Israel foreign meddling and treacherous lefties. According to Bibi, only he could save Israel from being derailed by these awful detractors.
And on the day of the elections, Netanyahu issued a panicked racist intonation about Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who were evidently galvanised into voting by the new Joint List, a coalition of four marginal Arab and Jewish-Arab parties.
“Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls,” he said, in a video message posted to his Facebook page. “Left-wing organisations are busing them out.”
That last statement – about Israel’s 20 percent Palestinian population exercising their democratic right to vote – drew appalled criticism from international observers and Israeli centrists alike. The New York Times editorial today railed against Netanyahu’s last-minute electioneering, describing it as “racist”, “desperate” and “craven”.
But Bibi doesn’t care about any of that – why would he? The goal is to stay in power, not make outsiders like or approve of him. And the Likud leader knew his coded comments would tap into core Jewish Israeli fears (sentiments that he has cannily stoked and manipulated during his time in office) and bring more votes his way.
Indeed, it seems that in the past few days, Netanyahu has specifically targeted and sought to cannibalise votes from parties to the right of his own. Likud’s higher-than-predicted gains in this election are set against lower-than-expected results for elements of the far right.
The Likud leader knew his coded comments would tap into core Jewish Israeli fears (sentiments that he has cannily stoked and manipulated during his time in office) and bring more votes his way.
Netanyahu’s political skill – you might find it distasteful, manipulative, but what else would you call it? – made Israelis forget about everything else, even the issues they care deeply about.
All those scandals of the past months, involving outrage at the Netanyahus’ out-of-touch, high-living ways – the vats of pistachio ice cream, excessive bills for food and cleaning and hairstylists – that were burning a hole through public funds were wiped from memory.
All the gathering momentum around the “Anyone but Bibi” campaigns, the bitter accusations of him doing nothing of note or of public benefit during his tenure clean evaporated.
Israelis – living in a country with one of the widest wealth gaps in the developed world – have repeatedly expressed concerns over the economy, the not-remotely-affordable housing, the stunted wages and the unsustainably spiralling cost of living.
But Netanyahu – a free-market neoliberal who has repeatedly been accused of ignoring such concerns – just overrode those issues with his intransigent tirades.
Dimi Rieder, Israeli journalist and co-founder of +972 magazine, has wryly observed that Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician and protagonist from the Netflix House of Cards series, has nothing on Netanyahu.
The prime minister called these early elections in the first place because he wanted to get rid of elements of his coalition that were less cooperative, less hard-right. Now it looks like Netanyahu will form a coalition that is even more ultra-nationalist and settler-enabling than before.
Just weeks ago, analysts were wondering if Bibi was regretting the early election decision, if it may have backfired.
But they forgot about his ever-reliable trump card: fear.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.