In what appear to be the last days of his historic 12-year rule, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not leaving the political stage quietly.
The longtime leader is accusing his opponents of betraying his voters and some have needed special protection for security.
Netanyahu said he was the victim of a “deep” conspiracy. He speaks in apocalyptic terms when he speaks of the country without its leadership.
“They’re ripping off the good and replacing it with the bad and the dangerous,” Netanyahu told conservative Channel 20 television this week. “I fear the fate of the nation.”
This language has been going on for tense days as Netanyahu and his loyalists make one last desperate push to try to prevent a new government from taking office on Sunday. With his options exhausted, he has also provided a preview of Netanyahu as the opposition leader.
For those who have seen Netanyahu dominate Israeli politics for much of the fourth quarter of a century, his recent behavior is familiar.
He frequently describes threats both large and small in clear terms. He has belittled his rivals and prospered using division and conquest tactics. He paints his Jewish opponents as weak and self-hating “leftists” and Arab politicians as a potential fifth column of terrorist sympathizers.
He routinely presents himself in grandiose terms as the only person capable of leading the country through his endless security challenges.
“Under his tenure, identity politics is at an all-time high,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of Israel’s Institute for Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank.
It is a formula that has served Netanyahu well. He has led the right-wing Likud party with an iron fist for more than 15 years, racking up a series of electoral victories that earned him the nickname “King Bibi”.
He defended President Barack Obama’s pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians and publicly challenged him in 2015 by delivering a speech in Congress against the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran.
Although Netanyahu was unable to block the deal, he was richly rewarded by President Donald Trump, who recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, taken away of the nuclear deal and helped the runner diplomatic pacts between Israel and four Arab nations.
Netanyahu has delivered what appears to be a successful shadow war against Iran, while keeping Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians in a slow boil, with the exception of three brief wars with Hamas rulers in Gaza.
The situation with the Palestinians today is “remarkably the same” as when Netanyahu took office, Plesner said. “There are no major changes in any of the directions, no annexation or diplomatic advances.”
But some of Netanyahu’s tactics seem to haunt him again. The new Biden administration in the United States has been fun for the Israeli leader, while Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump has alienated large segments of the Democratic Party.
At home, Netanyahu’s magic has also dissipated, in large part due to his trial on corruption charges. It has attacked a growing list of perceived enemies: the media, the judiciary, the police, centrists, leftists and even hard-line nationalists who were formerly close allies.
In four consecutive elections since 2019, the once invincible Netanyahu was unable to get a parliamentary majority. Faced with the unattractive possibility of a fifth consecutive election, eight parties managed to reunite a majority coalition that will take office on Sunday.
Israeli politics is often divided between left-wing and sweet parties seeking a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians and religious and nationalist parties (long led by Netanyahu) that oppose Palestinian independence. If any of the recent elections had focused on the conflict, only right-wing parties would have formed a strong and stable majority.
But the Palestinians hardly emerged, another legacy of Netanyahu, who has pushed the issue to the sidelines.
Instead, everything seemed to be about Netanyahu’s personality and legal issues, which turned out to be deeply polarizing. The incoming government includes three small parties led by former Netanyahu aides who had bitter ruptures with him, including alleged prime minister Naftali Bennett.
Bennett and his right-wing partners even broke a long-standing taboo about the alliance with Arab parties. A small one Islamist party, which Netanyahu had also courted, will be the first to join a ruling coalition.
Netanyahu and his Likud followers have become increasingly desperate. Initially, Netanyahu tried to attract some “deserters” from his former allies to prevent them from gaining a parliamentary majority.
When he failed, he resorted to language similar to that of his friend and benefactor Trump.
“We are witnessing the biggest electoral fraud in the country’s history,” Netanyahu said at a Likud meeting this week. He long ago dismissed the corruption process as a “witch hunt” driven by “fake news” and, in the television interview, said he was being persecuted by the “deep state.”
His supporters have held threatening rallies away from the home of lawmakers joining the new government. Some lawmakers say they and their families have received death threats, and one said it was recently followed by a mysterious car.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners have thrown Bennett as a threat to his religion, even someone asked him to remove his kippah, the cap worn by Jewish observers.
The online incitement of Netanyahu’s followers has grown so much that several incoming government members were assigned bodyguards or even moved to secret locations.
Some Israelis have made comparisons to the tensions that sparked the insurgency at the U.S. Capitol in January, while others have pointed to the incitement ahead of the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
In a rare public statement, Nadav Argaman, the head of Shin Bet’s internal security agency, recently warned of a “serious rise and radicalization of violent and inciting discourse” on social media that he said could lead to violence.
Netanyahu has condemned the incitement, noting that he has also been a target.
On Thursday afternoon, Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a statement on Twitter in English saying its fraud comments were not aimed at the vote-counting process and that it has “full confidence” in them. “There is also no doubt about the peaceful transition of power,” he said.
Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, said he expects them to remain unstable in the coming months.
“We will see a very assertive and aggressive opposition leader, i.e. Netanyahu, determined to make sure that this coalition of change will be short-lived and that we will have other elections as soon as possible,” he said. added.
“We don’t even remember the look of normal politics,” Talshir said.