As Israelis head to polls, it's all about Netanyahu

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's election campaign has been a three-month roller coaster of mudslinging, scandals and more scandals. But when voters head to the polls on Tuesday, one name will be predominantly on their minds: Benjamin Netanyahu.

At its core, the vote boils down to a referendum on Netanyahu, the man who has dominated Israeli politics for the better part of three decades. A victory will propel him into the record books later this year as the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.

A loss would likely end his career just as he is enjoying the limelight at the vanguard of a rising global movement of tough-talking, nationalist world leaders led by his close friend, President Donald Trump.

"Israel's standing internationally has never been as solid as it is right now. International leaders are lining up to visit Israel and meet with the prime minister," said Yechiel Leiter, a former Netanyahu chief of staff who is now a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Jerusalem think tank. "Everyone knows Bibi wherever you go."

Netanyahu's impassioned supporters revere him as larger-than-life "King Bibi," friend of powerful world leaders and guarantor of Israel's security in a tough neighborhood. His opponents revile him as a corrupt hedonist who has divided the country by inciting against Arabs and whose policies toward the Palestinians are leading Israel off a cliff.

In the final days of the campaign, the race appears too close to call as Netanyahu faces a strong challenge from Benny Gantz, a popular former army chief. Polls show Netanyahu's Likud party and Gantz's new Blue and White party neck and neck. The surveys give Likud a slight advantage in being able to put together a governing coalition with smaller, likeminded parties.

The son of a Jewish historian and scarred by the loss of his brother in a 1976 Israeli commando raid on a hijacked airline at Uganda's Entebbe airport, Netanyahu, 69, often portrays himself — and the country — in historical terms. He laces his speeches with references to Jewish history, tales of Jewish heroism and warnings that Israel's most sinister enemies lurk around every corner. The main target of his diatribes, Iran, is often compared to biblical enemies and even the Nazis.

Though he is an MIT-educated millionaire who speaks flawless American-accented English, Netanyahu has managed to portray himself as an outsider and underdog. He claims to be persecuted by journalists, judges and other hostile "elites" in a message that endears him to his religious, working class political base.

"He's unprecedentedly gifted. He's a competent political maneuverer and the most effective political communicator in Israel's history," said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "And his personal motivation to continue to hold onto power is infinite."

Netanyahu's campaign has focused heavily on smearing opponents as weak "leftists," routinely claiming they are conspiring with the country's Arab parties against him. Opponents accuse him of incitement and demonizing Israel's Arab minority, which makes up roughly 20 percent of the population.

"Netanyahu incites against us more than anyone, and each time he breaks his own record," wrote Ayman Odeh, a prominent Arab lawmaker, on Twitter.

It's a formula that has worked before — and this time, he has an added Trump card.

Since taking office, Trump has given Netanyahu gift after gift, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians.

All but endorsing Netanyahu, Trump hosted him at the White House late last month and recognized Israel's annexation of the occupied Golan Heights. Over the weekend, Netanyahu announced in a television interview that if re-elected, he would move to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a step that would likely erase the last hopes of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Anshel Pfeffer, author of "Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu," said the Israeli leader has managed to leverage every major geopolitical event in recent years to his advantage. Israel's economy is flourishing, it is expanding diplomatic ties around the world, and there has been no punishment for ignoring the ticking time bomb of the Palestinian issue.

While turning the Palestinians into a "sideshow," Netanyahu has even managed to cultivate behind-the-scenes ties with Gulf Arab countries. "It's not that Israelis are drifting to the right. It's that Netanyahu has won the argument," Pfeffer said.

Netanyahu's campaign videos show him hobnobbing with Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of China, India, Africa and Latin America. Massive political billboards show him standing alongside Trump.

Following up his White House visit, Netanyahu traveled last week to Moscow to meet with Putin, where the Russian leader acknowledged helping return the remains of an Israeli soldier who went missing in action in Lebanon 37 years ago. It was another election-related gift to Netanyahu, reinforcing his business-as-usual message that the country is secure and in good hands.

But this campaign is anything but usual. Gantz, with two other former military chiefs on his ticket, is a rare candidate who has the credentials to challenge Netanyahu on security, always a central issue to voters. He has derided Netanyahu's failure to halt rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Yet Gantz's main focus has been on Netanyahu himself, taking aim at the raft of corruption allegations against the prime minister. Israel's attorney general has recommended indicting Netanyahu on bribery and breach of trust charges. Rivals have also begun to question a deal in which Netanyahu reportedly earned $4 million on a German submarine sale to Egypt by owning shares in one of the German manufacturer's suppliers.

"Enough already Bibi," say Gantz's campaign videos.

The election campaign has been especially nasty. Netanyahu has branded his opponent a weak "leftist" and tried to seize on the discovery that Gantz's mobile phone was infiltrated by Iranian hackers. Likud attack ads paint Gantz as stuttering and mentally unstable.

Gantz, 59, accuses Netanyahu of leading the country to "low and bad places. Israeli researchers' recent discovery of a network of social media bots that promoted Likud messages and smeared Gantz has deepened the animosity.

Netanyahu's confident rhetorical style has served him well during a three-decade career that has included time at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, a stint as ambassador to the United Nations and an earlier term as prime minister in the 1990s. The scandals seem to have had no effect on his supporters.

But if the attorney general files formal charges after the election, the walls may finally close in on a newly re-elected Netanyahu.

Pfeffer, the Netanyahu biographer, predicted a "major showdown" with the legal branch and said Netanyahu will search for a way to dismiss the charges or pass a law granting him immunity.

"We're facing a constitutional crisis in the next few months in Israel," he said.

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Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.