In 1996, a canny and polished politician named Benjamin Netanyahu stormed onto the electoral scene and became Israel's youngest prime minister. An articulate and commanding presence, fluent in English, twice wounded in combat, he became a political force of nature, never far from the spotlight — or the minds of his rivals — even during the few years when he was out of power.
Now, however, voters may finally be turning away from the 65-year-old leader. Trailing in the polls as he heads into Tuesday's general elections, the prime minister has acknowledged he is in danger of being dislodged, though the famously mercurial Israeli electorate may yet make a last-minute swerve, and the vagaries of Israel's complicated political system are likely to cloud the outcome.
Candidates crisscrossed the country Sunday, making impassioned eleventh-hour appeals in what has turned into one of the hardest-fought campaigns in modern Israeli history. For Netanyahu's main competition, a center-left party known as the Zionist Union, the message was simple: It's time for the prime minister to go.
"The public has had enough of Netanyahu," said Isaac Herzog, the soft-spoken and scholarly lawyer-politician who morphed into the driven candidate now seen as the likeliest contender to lead the country if Netanyahu's Likud Party falls short. "The public wants change."
Polls appeared to bear him out. In the last surveys released before a "poll blackout" took effect at the end of last week, nearly three-quarters of the respondents said the country needed a change of course.
But if the country's longest-serving prime minister since founding father David Ben-Gurion is on his way out, he is definitely not going without a fight. In a series of sharply combative interviews, Netanyahu depicted his rivals — Herzog and running mate Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and peace negotiator — as weak and naive, asserting they would make extraordinary concessions to Palestinians and fail to safeguard Israel against a nuclear Iran.
"Buji and Tzipi will run straight to Ramallah," the prime minister thundered in an interview Sunday on Israel Radio, calling Herzog by his widely used nickname as he referred to the West Bank city that is the Palestinian Authority's home base. "They will capitulate immediately.... They cannot withstand international pressure, and don't want to."
With the campaign's end in sight, the candidates reached for emotional touchstones. Herzog on Sunday visited the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, while Netanyahu made a rare personal campaign appearance before a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv, where he railed against what he called outside pressure to unseat him.
"We don't back down, even under fire," he said, addressing the crowd from behind a screen of bulletproof glass in Rabin Square, named for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "We offer truth to the whole world, as I did before Congress, in Washington." He was referring to his controversial speech this month in the Capitol, which he used as a rallying cry against the Obama administration's efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.
Although the final burst of electioneering has taken on the tenor of high drama, commentators of all political stripes were nearly unanimous in their assessment that the vote is unlikely to result in a decisive victory for either side, because of Israel's intricately wrought system of coalition governance.
The Zionist Union and Likud are the two largest among 26 political parties contesting the election, and it is virtually impossible for either one to achieve a majority in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset. They must woo coalition partners, a process that can at times resemble a delicate minuet and at others a barroom brawl, and which can take weeks to yield a result.
It is usually the leader of the biggest vote-getting party who heads the government, but not always. In 2013, Livni's Kadima party bested Netanyahu's by a single seat, but she was unable to muster enough support for a workable coalition. Netanyahu was.
If the Zionist Union wins this election, she and Herzog have agreed to rotate the prime minister's post.
Rivals can end up teaming up to form a "unity government" — which tends to struggle under the weight of internal contradictions — but Netanyahu has said he would not enter into such an arrangement, and the Zionist Union, having made calls for his ouster a centerpiece of its election platform, might find it awkward to then court him.
Netanyahu's seemingly flustered demeanor in the campaign's waning days was a far cry from three short months ago, when he summarily fired Cabinet ministers he deemed insubordinate, in effect dissolving his coalition and precipitating elections, which are being held two years ahead of schedule. At the time, the prime minister's camp appeared confident he would win a mandate that would allow him to form a more conservative coalition without the presence of overt opponents in his government.
In hindsight, some observers said, that appears to have been a potentially fatal political miscalculation, a gamble founded both on hubris and a serious underestimation of popular discontent. A key early indicator of growing public restiveness was a grass-roots social-issues campaign that sprang up in 2011, galvanizing nationwide demonstrations over the high cost of living and unleashing new political forces.
Soaring housing costs, in particular, became a prominent issue in this campaign, but Netanyahu infuriated many voters by appearing to brush off their concerns in favor of a relentless focus on the Iranian nuclear threat.
Some commentators, though, said Netanyahu had run up against the pitfall that awaits any long-serving leader: simple voter fatigue. Columnist Sever Plocker, writing in the Yediot Aharonot daily, said that as the campaign drew to a close, Herzog had been wise to not only focus on social issues, but also to make the race a referendum on Netanyahu.
"Bibi is the weakness," he wrote, using the prime minister's universally known nickname. "Netanyahu, who wanted to cast himself as the responsible adult who is capable of navigating the country through stormy waves, has lost his captain's touch."
The prime minister's stature too was tarnished by scandals that, if not sufficient in themselves to seriously dent his popularity, exposed him to mockery. Those included the disclosure that over a three-year period ending in 2012, he and his wife, Sara, had spent in excess of $100 a day in public funds on personal grooming, according to a state comptroller's report.
Amid a sense that momentum was shifting away from Netanyahu, the Zionist Union warned supporters against complacency. "It's not over yet," Herzog said. Friday's opinion polls, the last of the campaign to be published, indicated a lead of up to five seats for his party, but wider gaps than that have been reversed before, particularly with so many voters still on the fence.
Moreover, voters turning their backs on Netanyahu and the Likud are likelier to migrate to centrist or right-leaning parties rather than the Zionist Union. One such party, the centrist Kulanu, is forecast to be a kingmaker in coalition negotiations, but has not said which bloc it would support.
Netanyahu, who had held himself aloof from the campaign until its final weekend, radiated grim determination in the race's final stretch. Asked whether he would step down as Likud's leader if his party does not win, a step that would amount to leaving politics, he responded, "I am not quitting anything."
"Right now I am focused on winning," the prime minister said. "It is difficult, but it is possible."
Times staff writer King reported from Tel Aviv and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem.