King Bibi Netanyahu, the magician – analysis

One conclusion from these elections: Tibi scares Israelis more than Erdogan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The coalition may not yet be in the bag, but after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's impressive showing in Monday's election, it can now be said with complete certainty: the man is a political magician.
After already serving as prime minister for 14 years, 11 of them consecutively; just two weeks before the start of a trial on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud; with a good part – but by no means all – of the media against him; with a bevy of former security chiefs and diplomats declaring his continued rule would endanger democracy -- Netanyahu again defeated the odds and pulled out what, according to the exit polls, looks like a victory.
His path to building a coalition will not be easy, but with all the parties – and the public – sick of elections, this time Netanyahu is definitely in the driver's seat and should be able to pick up the seat or two he needs to finally give Israel a government.
And the key to his political magic is the fact that Netanyahu is simply a consummate campaigner.
No one campaigns better than Netanyahu. No one. He has energy, charisma, and a once-in-a-generation ability to talk to his voters at eye level. He knows what buttons to press – Jewish and Zionist pride, fear of the Left – and he presses them better than anyone else.
He also has a record of achievements over the last decade – in security, diplomacy and the economy – on which to lean. Most people, if they are able to look beyond their personal opinion of the prime minister, believe the country truly is in a much better place across a wide range of metrics than it was before he regained power in 2009.
And what about the indictments? Monday's results show that for a majority of the nation, the indictments don't bother them that much. Either they don't believe Netanyahu is corrupt, or – if they do – they don't think it warrants throwing a leader of his stature out the window.
To a certain degree, Netanyahu – ironically – owes part of this victory to Gideon Sa'ar. Yes, Sa'ar, the Likud MK who challenged him in December in the Likud primaries. That race forced Netanyahu out into the field – going night after night to Likud parlor meetings from Karmiel to Bat Yam, Tiberias to Dimona, to ensure victory.
He won that primary in a landslide victory, and in the process reconnected with a base that he had largely abandoned in the campaign before the September elections. Before those elections he only sparingly waded out to the people, opting to speak from behind his desk via Facebook, rather than in front of hundreds of people at Likud rallies.
The primary campaign reignited in Netanyahu a fondness for the campaign trail, and the 70-year-old candidate hit it with a vengeance, given two, three, even four rallies a day. Touching his base, firing them up, and being fired up by them in return. Gantz, 10 years his junior but without supporters with a history of decades of allegiance to the party whom he could feed off, could not compete.
Election turnout was the key to this round, with the Likud identifying early on that its path to victory ran through bringing the traditional Likud supporters – many of them who stayed home or grazed in other fields in September – out to the polls and back home.
While Blue and White tried to lure voters from the “soft right,” Netanyahu focused on just getting the Likud voters out to vote. The campaign rallies helped him do it.
In retrospect, the most important single event of the campaign – and the one that led to Netanyahu's impressive showing  – was not the high-profile release of US President Donald Trump's “Deal of the Century,” nor Netanyahu’s promise of annexation, nor his winning the return of Naama Issachar from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The most significant event of the campaign took place just a few hours before Trump's roll out of his plan in the White House on January 28, when Netanyahu announced that he was withdrawing his request to the Knesset for immunity.
That surprise decision came just hours before the Knesset plenum was to vote to form a House Committee that would then debate and – in all probability – reject Netanyahu's immunity request. This process would have kept Netanyahu's legal issue at the top of the public agenda for days, if not weeks.
But in one swoop, Netanyahu removed that threat, withdrawing his request. Netanyahu's legal issues were soon overtaken by other issues – the situation in Gaza, the coronavirus – and as much as Blue and White tried, it failed to turn the indictments into the issue of the election.
Blue and White –whose entire campaign centered on the suitability for high office of a man accused of malfeasance – lost its marquee issue.
Netanyahu still has a long road ahead: Remember, his party was the largest party after the April elections, and the right-wing bloc seemingly had the government in its pocket, yet he was unable to finish the deal. But on Tuesday night he is at the strongest he has been politically since the night of the first election back in April.
Both the Likud and Blue and White parties brought actors from the outside to star in their campaigns: Netanyahu brought in Joint Arab List MK Ahmad Tibi, and Blue and White deployed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Netanyahu tried to scare the voters by saying that if they voted for Gantz, they would put the keys to the country squarely in the hands of Tibi, since Blue and White could not mathematically form a government without support of his party.
And Gantz's slogan was simple: either vote for Gantz, or get Israel's version of Erdogan – the Turkish leader who has led that country perilously close to autocratic rule.
The country, it seems, was not convinced that Netanyahu is Erdogan. It was afraid, however, that a vote for Gantz would give Tibi and the Joint List inordinate power. One conclusion from these elections: Tibi scares Israelis more than Erdogan.