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Bibi goes to battle: Israelis head to the polls today for the fourth time in two years

Will 'Bibi the magician' pull yet another rabbit from his hat?

Updated: March 23, 2021 - 9:03am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Israelis head back to the polls today to vote (for the fourth time in two years) on who will lead their government.

The big question is whether long-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to hold onto his post, which depends in turn on whether his allies in the Israeli parliament will do well enough to hand him the coalition he needs to form a government.

"Bibi the Magician" is what Israelis have begun calling their leader, says Gregg Roman, the head of the Middle East Forum. "He always manages to turn things around in the final 48-72 hours."

In a few hours, the world will know if Netanyahu has once again pulled a rabbit out of a hat.

Final polling, which was conducted until the Friday prior to Election Day, suggested continued political deadlock could prevail, with neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu blocs winning the 61 seats necessary to form a government.

Yet, after witnessing a string of nimble and creative maneuvers by Netanyahu to retain power in recent years after many had written his political epitaph, few Israelis would now venture to count him out. As the prime minister has said of himself: "I know how to fly this plane. The other guys, they don't have a flight license."

Most recently, Netanyahu helped create a coalition crisis over the nation's budget in order to avoid putting himself in premiership rotation with Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Meanwhile, Gantz's Blue and White Party has imploded over the last year since forming a unity government with Netanyahu after the last election.

Still, some believe this could really be the end of the road for Netanyahu. Joel Rosenberg, the editor of All Israel News, said last week during an interview with David Brody on "The Water Cooler" that he believes Netanyahu is presently in the "most serious position politically that he has been in since 1999, when he lost his first reelection as prime minister."

Netanyahu is "slipping," said Rosenberg, despite a recent foreign and defense policy record — including the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem, the Abraham Accords, a deal to acquire stealth F-35 fighter jets, a successful pressure campaign against Iran, and Israel's most peaceful decade ever — that puts the prime minister in "Nobel prize territory." 

"He cannot seem to form a stable government and his support is slipping," said Rosenberg. "He hasn’t passed a budget in a year," and Israelis perceive his initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic as dismal, although Israel's vaccine distribution effort has been the envy of the world, and much of the Israeli population has now been jabbed twice and is out of lockdown.

Environmental voters are also not in Netanyahu's corner at the moment. Weeks ago, Israel suffered globs of tar washing up along much of its Mediterranean shoreline, wreaking havoc on Israeli beaches and the animals that dwell near them. Several members of the country's government have blamed Iran for inflicting the oil leak on Israel, but whatever the cause, it became very clear, very quickly that the billions of dollars Netanyahu and his party have been promising to pump into Israel's environmental protection agency over the years somehow never made it. 

A final factor to consider is Israel's ever-important relationship with the United States. There is a "raw tension," said Roman, among those who fear that Netanyahu may have "cast his lot too much with President Trump and it has damaged the [prospects] for positive relations with President Biden."

Nir Barkat, a former mayor of Jerusalem and current member of parliament for Netanyahu's Likud party, disagrees that potential tensions with American leaders will be the decisive factor for Israeli voters.

"They will choose the best Israeli prime minister regardless of who is president of the United States," Barkat recently said. 

Largely agreeing that Netanyahu looks strong headed into today's vote, Roman says that despite hesitance on the part of some right-wing and center-right leaders in parliament who don't appreciate Netanyahu's style of governance, the longtime leader has at this point "secured his base." 

"He has a better chance of getting those 61 seats necessary for his coalition than he did a week ago, a month ago, or even at the beginning of these elections," Roman said.