Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
When Benjamin Netanyahu hits the campaign trail, he uses what’s been dubbed the Bibimobile – a converted truck turned into a travelling stage ensconced in bulletproof glass.
Elevated like a king above his subjects — who fawn over him as the one and only savior to lead Israel.
And with polls showing Netanyahu’s block of parties falling short of the needed 61-seat majority to form a government, the former prime minister has been taking the Bibi show around Israel to try and shore up every last one of his supporters ahead of the November 1 elections.
At a campaign stop last week in Kiryat Malachi, Netanyahu tells supporters from the Bibimobile: “Don’t be despondent, be turbocharged. Bring everybody at home and tell them this time don’t stay at home – go and vote.”
For the first time in more than 12 years, Netanyahu has been campaigning from the outside – as opposition leader. After four elections in three years failed to bring about a stable government, Netanyahu was toppled from his perch as the longest-serving prime minister by Naftali Bennett and current caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who formed an unlikely coalition of diverse parties.
Their coalition – made up of parties from the right wing to the left, and, for the first time, an Arab party – had consensus on few issues but all agreed Netanyahu needed to be out. But ultimately it was their diversity – and a few rebellious members – that brought about the coalition’s downfall and now, Israel’s fifth election in less than four years.
Netanyahu’s potential path back to power is a narrow one. The same political leaders who refused to work with him after the 2021 election – even if they fell into the same center-right ideological camp as Netanyahu – don’t seem any more likely to support him this year. That means Netanyahu will have to rely on parties further to the right in order to build a coalition, and the resulting government could reshape Israeli laws and society in a way no Israeli government has done before.
Polls suggest no bloc has a clear majority that could form a ruling government – but Netanyahu’s Likud party looks like it will be the biggest single party in the Knesset. Campaign advertisements on buses show Netanyahu pointing at the viewer, saying the path to the majority “is up to you!”
Netanyahu has been campaigning on the policies he championed when he was in power: safety and security, preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, supporting Jewish settlements in the West Bank, maintaining Israel’s military deterrence against enemies, and, in these tough economic times, reducing the cost of living.
But he himself may be the single biggest election issue.
His supporters – acting more like fans at a sporting event – eat it up.
One of them, jumping in front of the CNN camera, yells “Bibi is King of Israel! All people in the world is afraid of Bibi because the man is strong.”
And, it’s whether or not voters are afraid of what Netanyahu will do that will determine how they vote.
“We’re not talking about the future of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. We’re not really talking about cost of living, though Israel, like every other country is facing its own cost of living crisis,” said Anshel Pfeffer, The Economist and Haaretz correspondent who wrote a 2018 biography of Netanyahu called “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“We’re not talking about any other policy issue really, beyond Netanyahu and what Netanyahu will do on the day after the election,” he said.
A chance to quash the trials
He’s also talking about reforming the judiciary.
Despite the ongoing campaign, Netanyahu is still in the midst of his corruption trial – where he faces one charge of bribery and three charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption investigations.
Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty and called his ongoing corruption trial a “witch hunt” and an “attempted coup” and has called for changes to Israel’s judiciary system.
Yohanan Plesner, a former member of the Israeli parliament and the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that if Netanyahu comes back to power, his first focus will be on using his majority to put a stop to the trial.
“His energy and focus will be on his trial, on eroding and undermining the independence, the independence of the judiciary, perhaps firing the Attorney General, those kinds of maneuvers that will allow him to free himself from the legal process that he’s facing,” Plesner said.
Plesner said the Israeli public’s debate about the future of Netanyahu is “entangled with a major debate about the features of Israeli democracy, how Israeli democracy should look like and the independence of the judiciary … the very nature and fundamental characteristics of our democracy.”
One of Netanyahu’s likely coalition allies, right-wing religious Zionist leader Bezalel Smotrich, has proposed a series of drastic legal reforms, seen by many critics as a clear way to undercut judicial independence, including dropping the ability to charge a public servant with fraud and breach of trust – a charge Netanyahu faces in his current trial.
Asked about the proposal by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Netanyahu demurred and said, “I wouldn’t do anything that affects me. I think my trial is unraveling as it is.”
Extremists with power
Much of Netanyahu’s support in a future government would need to come from the extreme right wing.
The coalition would include a new joint group led by Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, an extremist who has been convicted for supporting terrorism and inciting racism.
He was known for hanging in his home a portrait of the Israeli man who massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994 before being beaten to death himself.
In 2020, Ben Gvir tweeted he would take the portrait down, ahead of the elections, “…for the sake of unity and the victory of the right,” he said.
Earlier this month, Ben Gvir inflamed already sky-high tensions in the flashpoint Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah by pulling a gun during clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, yelling at police to shoot Arabs who were throwing stones.
But polls show Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s joint party on the rise and could garner more than a dozen seats in the 120-seat Knesset – a showing many Israelis thought unfathomable just a few years ago – becoming a key pillar of Netanyahu’s comeback attempt, and power.
Plesner said Netanyahu would once have “never dreamt of including such an extreme figure in his government,” but now he may need to appoint the once outcast Ben Gvir to a ministerial position.
“Now he has no choice. The more moderate Israeli politicians do not want anything to do with Mr. Netanyahu. And therefore he built partnerships [with] these really extreme right. We might expect to see Ben Gvir in the government. What kind of portfolio? What power will you have beyond a provocations and populism?” Plesner said.
Pfeffer told CNN that these extremists will extract a price from Netanyahu – that may include showing more favors towards West Bank settlers.
“The question is, what is the price that the far right is going to extricate from him? …. perhaps some settlements in the West Bank which were in the past abandoned by Israel, will be rebuilt, reoccupied?” Pfeffer said. “And perhaps further steps towards some type of annexation in the West Bank?”
All are moves that would likely inflame and escalate tensions with the Palestinians.
Just last year Netanyahu said Ben Gvir wasn’t fit to serve in the cabinet. But earlier this month, Netanyahu reversed himself, when asked if Ben Gvir would be a minister in his government.
“He certainly can, anyone can,” he said.
But Moshe Klughaft, an international political strategist who used to work with Netanyahu, said he doesn’t think the former PM will take extreme steps because a government with the likes of Ben Gvir will collapse quickly.
“He will not do significant movements like applying (sovereignty over) the territories or something like this. Netanyahu’s strategy is work for the short term, and then for another short term and another short term and not for the long term,” Klughaft told CNN. “So now he wants to win the elections, to gain 61 (seats). After this, he will want to establish a government and after this, I think he will want to go to another election as a caretaker prime minister.”
In his interview with CNN’s Zakaria, Netanyahu denied that the extremists will have any power.
“I’ve had such partners in the past, and they didn’t change an iota of my policies. I decide the policy with my party, which is the largest party by far in the country. And we are a center-right party and a responsible party, but we are not going to adopt norms for the government that we don’t agree with,” Netanyahu said.
But before he can decline such policy ideas, he’ll need to claw his way back to power, one parliamentary seat at a time.
Government supporters demonstrated outside the British embassy in Tehran to protest the UK government’s “role” in recent unrest in Iran, state-aligned news agency Tasnim said on Thursday.
Tasnim said the student protesters accuse the UK of supporting BBC Persian and Iran International, networks that they say encourage anti-government demonstrations across the country.
“In recent weeks, several channels including Iran International, Manoto, BBC and Radiofarda have been officially teaching guerilla warfare and battle tactics” and “have formed a kind of media terrorism,” Tasnim said.
Here’s the latest on this developing story:
- Germany’s foreign ministry invited the Iranian ambassador to a meeting in Berlin on Thursday after the German ambassador was summoned in Tehran in response to “interventionist positions.”
- Amnesty International said on Thursday that Iran’s security forces killed at least eight people in less than 24 hours after opening fire “on mourners and protesters in at least four provinces.” CNN cannot independently verify the death toll.
- Mourners gathering near the village of Veysian to commemorate the 40th day since the death of Nika Shahkarami, a 16-year-old protester who went missing on September 20, were met with gunfire and tear gas by security forces, according to video posted on social media and geolocated by CNN.
- Read: What really happened to Nika Shahkarami? Witnesses to her final hours cast doubt on Iran’s story
Iran’s Khamenei vows revenge after deadly attack on shrine
Iran’s supreme leader promised on Thursday to retaliate against those threatening the country’s security after the massacre of Shiite pilgrims, an assault claimed by ISIS that threatens to inflame tensions amid widespread anti-government protests. “We all have a duty to deal with the enemy and its traitorous or ignorant agents,” Reuters cited Ali Khamenei as saying.
- Background: ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on a Shiite shrine in the city of Shiraz on Wednesday that left at least 15 people dead and more than 40 injured, ISIS affiliated Amaq news agency said. According to Iran’s state-run Press TV, two children were among the victims. Nour News Agency, affiliated with Iran’s top security body, said the suspects were foreign nationals. Two people have been arrested for their involvement in the attack and efforts to arrest a third person are continuing, state-aligned Tasnim News said. And on Friday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said that its intelligence unit had foiled a bomb attack in the southern city of Shiraz.
- Why it matters: Wednesday’s attack came on the same day that Iranian security forces clashed with increasingly strident protesters marking 40 days since the death of Mahsa Amini. ISIS, which once posed a security threat across the Middle East, has claimed previous violence in Iran, including deadly twin attacks in 2017 that targeted parliament and the tomb of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. It has since slipped into the shadows.
Top Israeli banker speaks at Saudi business forum in latest sign of thaw in ties
Israel’s Bank Leumi would like to tap into investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia, Chairman Samer Haj Yehia told a business forum in Riyadh, which he is attending in the latest sign of a potential thawing in Saudi-Israeli relations, Reuters reported. “We can see that there’s a lot of investment going on, and we want to tap into that kind of investment, whether it’s on the payment side or on the retail side or on the cryptocurrency side,” Haj Yehia told a panel at the FII forum on Thursday.
- Background: Riyadh has said it will not normalize ties with Israel in the absence of a resolution to Palestinian statehood goals, but made some overtures earlier this year including opening its airspace to all airlines, including Israeli carriers. In 2020 Bank Leumi signed memorandums of understanding with two leading banks in the United Arab Emirates – First Abu Dhabi Bank and Emirates NBD. Haj Yehia is the first Palestinian citizen of Israel to serve as Leumi’s chairman.
- Why it matters: The presence of Bank Leumi, one of Israel’s two largest banks, at the kingdom’s flagship investment event suggested this marked another gesture by Riyadh towards warmer ties with Israel after fellow Gulf states the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain forged ties with Israel in 2020, with Saudi blessing.
Israel and Lebanon teams sat around same table for maritime deal
The Israeli and Lebanese negotiators of their maritime border agreement sat around the same table when finalizing the deal under United States and United Nations auspices, and after the US intermediary announced the deal was done, everyone clapped, Lior Haiat, head of the National Public Diplomacy Directorate in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office told CNN Thursday.
- Background: Israel and Lebanon finalized an agreement defining their maritime borders in the Mediterranean on Thursday, President Joe Biden announced on Twitter. The signing officially settles a years-long maritime border dispute involving major oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean. The area in question includes part of the Karish oil and gas field and a region known as the Qanaa prospect. The deal gives oil and gas rights in the Karish field to Israel, while Lebanon gets access to the Qanaa prospect – with Israel earning 17% of the profits.
- Why it matters: The two countries are formally at war and have no diplomatic relations. The maritime border deal is not technically an agreement between the two countries, but a statement from each side to the United States and United Nations confirming their acceptance of the location of the sea border.
What to watch
Saudi Arabia’s Yasmeen Shabaan started her athletic journey by doing Ironman championships and then went on to become the first Saudi woman to complete a marathon.
Watch her story here:
Around the region
An Iranian hermit known as “the world’s dirtiest man” has died at the ripe old age of 94, just months after taking his first wash in decades, Iranian state media announced.
“Amu Haji” – Uncle Haji – as he was referred to, died on Sunday in Dezhgah, a village in the country’s southern province of Fars, state news agency IRNA reported.
According to the region’s district head, Haji had for decades avoided fresh food and believed that “if he cleans himself, he will get sick,” the agency reported.
Haji was known for his staunch stance against bathing: A few years ago, when a group of villagers took him to a nearby river in an attempt to bathe him, he threw himself out of the car and ran away.
Locals in the area all treated him and his condition with respect, IRNA reported, understanding that his fear of getting sick was the reason he avoided water.
A few months ago, villagers successfully gave Haji a wash.
Haji was unmarried. His funeral was held Tuesday evening in the nearby city of Farashband, according to IRNA.
By Hafsa Khalil