It was a win by the slimmest margin. Back in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu took the Israeli election by less than 1% of the total votes.
Twenty-three years later, he has pulled off more knife-edge election acrobatics, securing a fifth term even though he tied in the election, after his main rival conceded.
Set to become Israel’s longest-serving leader in July, Netanyahu’s time in power will surpass even the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. School graduates have spent most of their lives with him as their prime minister.
Under his leadership, 13 years in total, Israel’s entire political arena has become more overtly hardline, in line with his ultranationalist, us-versus-them, force-over-compromise style.
“I’m changing Israel, I’m making it a world force, not through concessions but the exact opposite,” the 69-year-old leader said last weekend before Tuesday’s election in a last-minute appeal to his rightwing base. “Not through the path of the left, but by communicating and by radiating power, pride, commitment.”
The former commando emerged as a key figure in the hawkish backlash to a string of flailing peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. On the morning in 1996 when the votes had been counted, the New York Times reported his victory “cast serious doubts about the future shape of the[peace] process”.
“Mr Netanyahu built his campaign on charges that the peace with the Palestinians had not given Israelis security,” it wrote.
As a testament to the robustness of that message, the Israeli “peace camp” of the 1990s that he so scorned has all but vanished. Under his leadership, the entrenched occupation of the West Bank has been one of management and not whether to end it. On Sunday, he suggested it never will.
There used to be vocal, widespread unease in Israel around its decades-long military rule over the lives of several million Palestinians who have no vote and few rights. But in 2019, the Palestinian issue was so far down the list of talking points that the major parties on the campaign trail often did not even mention it.
A fluent English speaker with a deep American accent, Netanyahu grew to prominence as a face on US television, arguing for Israel while serving diplomatic posts at the embassy in Washington and then as a representative to the UN in New York.
He has intermittently lost power since then, including to former Labor leader Ehud Barak and then a member of his own Likud party, Ariel Sharon. However, he has now served four consecutive terms.
Seemingly an affable diplomat when speaking English, he has played the dog-whistle alarmist in Hebrew to rally his base, infamously exploiting anti-Arab fears to win the 2015 ballot.
This year, he has again been criticised as overtly racist, stating Israel was “not a state of all its citizens”, in a reference to the country’s minority population of Palestinian citizens – almost a fifth of Israelis. He later made an election pact with a group of far-right extremists called Jewish Power who are even talking of expelling them.
Named by his supporters and critics alike as “King Bibi”, he has convinced the electorate that they have never been safer, richer or stronger. His governments have become increasingly rightwing, promoting the idea of “Greater Israel” on to the Palestinian territories. So powerful was his message that even his main election contender, the former army chief Benny Gantz, was careful not to criticise him too harshly.
In a pre-election event, David Horovitz, the founding editor of The Times of Israel news website, asked Gantz about the challenges of running against a man who was seen as almost indistinguishable from the state.
“It’s a challenge when you’re up against someone for whom the words ‘prime minister’ and ‘Benjamin Netanyahu’ have almost become synonymous. They go together for so many people,” Horovitz said.
Gantz focused on corruption allegations against the prime minister but remembered to praise him, too. “I know Netanyahu is a good person … I don’t hate him,” he said.
At home, Netanyahu has fought two wars with Hamas in Gaza, the latest of which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to the UN, making 2014 the deadliest year for Palestinians since the occupation began in 1967. Seventy-three people, mostly military personnel, died on the Israeli side during the war.
He has joined Israel up to a brewing Middle East cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, siding with the former and regularly bombing Iranian forces stationed in neighbouring Syria.
On the world stage, the prime minister has dismissed traditional allies in Europe for authoritarian strongmen – even those accused of antisemitism – as a means of blocking EU anti-occupation efforts. His biggest global ally is Donald Trump, who has handed Netanyahu a series of his key demands that are seen as punishing the Palestinians. The Republican president has strived to make support for Israel, once a consensus issue in US politics, into a partisan topic that some Israelis fear could come back to bite them if a Democrat is elected.
Still, Netanyahu’s narrative has found both longevity and ardent believers. A pre-election poll found that among 18-24 year olds, support for Netanyahu over Gantz was 65% to 17%, a nearly 50-point margin.
The same survey found respondents believed the Trump Golan declarationhad strengthened his position. It did not say why younger adults loved Netanyahu so much but his election rivals have complained that many young Israelis simply cannot imagine another person in power.
Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli journalist and author of a Netanyahu biography, Bibi, said the prime minister has held on for so long because he smashed the idea that Israel would wither unless it ended its military rule over the Palestinians.
“Until a few years ago, the narrative of all of international community and the Israeli left was that Israel has to solve the conflict. If it doesn’t there will be a terrible intifada [Palestinian uprising]; its economy will be shattered; Israel will be isolated diplomatically,” he said.
Netanyahu has turned that narrative on its head, he argued, dismissing the Palestinian issue and playing up the threat from Iran and the Islamic State. “I’m not saying this is a good thing. I think Israel needs to solve the Palestinian issue and end the occupation because the occupation is bad and Palestinians deserve rights,” Pfeffer said.
“But the problem is that for so many years everyone was saying Israel needs to do this because if it doesn’t do it, Israel will suffer. And lo and behold, Israel hasn’t done that and Israel is flourishing.”