Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to his wife Sara during a meeting with the Roman Jewish Community.
TEL AVIV, Israel — Two days before Israelis went out to vote, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party was faltering in the polls. It was trailing the center-left Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog and former Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni.
Many voters, even those who had once supported him, said Netanyahu had gotten too comfortable — he has served longer than any prime minister in Israel’s history aside from the country’s founder David Ben Gurion — and focused too much on security, ignoring pressing domestic economic issues. They were ready for a change.
But in the end Israel again went with Netanyahu. Preliminary vote counts said his party will take 30 seats in the next Knesset, compared to the Zionist Union’s 24.
What changed? In the final days of the campaign — in Israel it’s forbidden to publish polling data within 48 hours of election day — the Netanyahu campaign panicked, lurching far to the right in a bid to rally his base.
In a withering editorial published the day after the elections, the New York Times said that Netanyahu’s actions in the last days of the campaign “showed that he was desperate, and craven, enough to pull out all the stops.”
The steps he took were mostly targeted at ignoring or outright denying Palestinian grievances.
In an interview with the Israeli news site, NRG, he ruled out any possibility of a Palestinian state on his watch. Netanyahu has been the main Israeli broker of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for almost a decade, and publicly committed to a two-state solution in 2009.
In a move that many have denounced as race baiting, he posted a message on his Facebook page warning that “the Arabs are moving in droves to the polling stations.” Israeli journalist Illene Prusher said of the statement: «We see in that moment what he really thinks of the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arab.»
Many Palestinians who hold Israeli nationality expressed excitement in the run-up to the election about voting for a new union of Arab parties called the Joint List, who had joined together for the first time and in doing so became Israel’s third biggest party overnight.
Despite his six-year incumbent status, Netanyahy painted his party as an underdog, attributing the left’s lead in the polls to «funds from foreign governments and organizations.»
On the eve of the election he also made a nod to the right-leaning settler community and promised to build thousands of settler homes in Arab East Jerusalem if elected. The settlements are being built on land Palestinians hope to base a future state. The international community considers the settlements illegal and sees them as an effort to prevent such a state from ever coming into being. Netanyahu has long defied calls by US President Barack Obama to freeze settlement building, which has deeply hurt relations between the two leaders.
Earlier in the campaign season Netanyahu pandered to his base and angered other parties in Israel by traveling to the United State and delivering a speech to Congress. He was invited by congressional Republicans, against the wishes of Obama, to speak about the Iranian nuclear threat, just as the United States was engaged in negotiations with the Iranians.
While some Israelis worried it was unwise to antagonize Israel’s biggest backer and ally, the speech in which he equated Iran with the Islamic State played quite well to a domestic audience.
Now, while the Likud party celebrates, those looking a little further down the road have some cause for alarm. Netanyahu’s reaffirmed support for settlement proliferation and his public refusal to allow a Palestinian state puts him directly at odds with the United States and the vast majority of the international community.
Netanyahu has emerged victorious at home, but Israel now faces international isolation on a scale not seen for a long time.
And as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin mulls forming a national unity government, it’s unclear how effective a prime minister as polarizing as Netanyahu, both at home and abroad, will be.