RAMLA, Israel (Reuters) – At a dead-end road in a crime-hit town in central Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu stands on a mobile stage enclosed by a glass wall, pledging through a window to restore law and order as the crowd chants “Bibi the king.”
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and the most dominant and polarizing political figure of his generation is back on the campaign trail as Israelis prepare to vote on Nov. 1 in their fifth national election in less than four years.
His Likud party is expected to win the largest bloc of seats in the Knesset. But with corruption charges hanging over him and criticism mounting over his links to a rapidly growing far-right party he may depend on to form a government, surveys predict there will be no knock-out victory.
For weeks, his “Bibi-bus” has been rolling through Likud strongholds across Israel as he seeks to drum up support from voters weary at the never-ending electoral deadlock that continues while the cost of living rises and security worries with Palestinian militants persist.
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“Do you want to restore national pride? Reduce living costs? Restore personal safety?” a smiling Netanyahu asked the crowd. “I’m not a king. A king doesn’t get elected. I need to be elected and that depends on you.”
Netanyahu, a close ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, has mounted a relentless stream of criticism against centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid, whose ruling coalition patched together after the last inconclusive election lasted but a year.
But with few major policy differences between the parties on issues ranging from the Palestinian question and Iran to the economy, the election is largely seen as a personal referendum on Netanyahu, whose hawkish image has increasingly been tarnished by his legal woes.
Turnout in Likud towns is relatively low and, stagnating in opinion polls, Netanyahu, who was first appointed prime minister as long ago as 1996, needs every vote he can get.
In Ramla, the “Bibi-bus” drew around 250 people. Later, in nearby Lod, the 400-yard park outside the neighbourhood synagogue was only half full.
Israel has been stuck in an election loop since 2019, the same year which saw Netanyahu indicted for corruption on charges he denies. As his trial proceeds, the split between his supporters and detractors has deepened.
“The only thing that really matters is Bibi or not Bibi, unfortunately,” said Hila Shay Vazan, former Knesset member and commentator.
Critics say that with help from the far-right, Netanyahu – presently opposition head, will seek radical judicial reforms that would allow him to stave off his trial and potential imprisonment if convicted – which he has denied.
The trial has overshadowed the achievements of Netanyahu’s last term in office, when Israel signed the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain under a process mediated by the Trump administration.
“He is with his back to the wall. And he feels, evidently, that this for him is a political battle for life and death,” said political analyst Amotz Asa-El at Shalom Hartman Institute.
Polls show Netanyahu’s bloc fluctuating between a narrow victory to just short of a ruling parliamentary majority with the far-right Jewish Power party of Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist once convicted of racist incitement, set to play the role of coalition kingmaker.
Both outcomes would make the chance of radical reforms slim to none, said Asa-El.
On his campaign, pushed hard on social networks, Netanyahu has said little about judiciary change, focusing his message on high living costs – a top concern for voters – and dismissing his trial as “rigged” and “a joke”.
Like Trump, Netanyahu says he is a victim of a political witch-hunt, counting on support from voters with little interest in the legal details of the trial, Asa-El said.
Netanyahu fans reject that notion.
“They say Bibi voters are stupid and ignorant,” said Ramla-raised importer Moti Karo, 56. “It’s not true. How can you dismiss street-smarts? Street-smarts is just what you need in the Middle East. And the street wants Bibi.”
(Additional reporting by Nir Elias, Rami Amichay and Steve Scheer; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by James Mackenzie and Angus MacSwan)
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