Benjamin Netanyahu has become Israel‘s longest-serving prime minister, snatching the title from the country’s founding father and first leader, David Ben-Gurion.
As of Saturday, the man referred to as King Bibi by both those who adore and detest him, has spent 4,867 days – more than 13 years – in office.
During the past two decades, the now-69-year-old former commando has repeatedly won elections on promises of making Israel secure and prosperous, while sidelining the Palestinians.
Despite passing the historic milestone, Netanyahu still needs to win a September election and survive three impending corruption cases to continue his long tenure.
His supporters claim Israel has never been richer, safer or more globally accepted, including by leaders of Arab states. Critics argue he has opened fissures in Israeli society, stigmatised minorities to win elections, crushed progressive and human rights activism and encouraged the rise of far-right politics into government.
In the latest election in April, he was accused of appealing to racist voters when he stated Israel was “not a state of all its citizens”, referring to the country’s minority population of Palestinian citizens. Netanyahu later made an election pact with a group of far-right extremists called Jewish Power.
In his party, the rightwing Likud, Netanyahu has remained at the top, even when it appeared scandals and crises might take him down.
“He is very talented at not letting any challenger grow within his party. Any person that looked even close to being popular was somehow kicked out or neutralised,” Rahat said. “Nobody was seen as a replacement for him.”
In 1996, Netanyahu became Israel’s youngest prime minister, running on a platform against flailing peace attempts, especially the Oslo accords that gave some limited autonomy to the Palestinians.
Under his leadership, control over Palestinian life has become entrenched. The military occupation of the West Bank is tightly managed, while Jewish settlement construction has spread, giving Netanyahu support from hawkish and pro-settler sections of society.
Orit Galili-Zucker, a political communications adviser who has worked with Netanyahu, said the prime minister had since made “no courageous decision on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israel remained stuck and he personally profited from his zero progress.”
Netanyahu had also managed to stay in power for so long, she said, by not embarking on grand military campaigns that resulted in large numbers of Israeli casualties, such as the 2006 Lebanon war headed by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
And as a man who made his break in politics as an affable English-speaking Israeli diplomat, he had excelled, she said, in campaigning and using TV and social media to rally support.
Yet Netanyahu could see his extraordinary run in power cut short before the end of the year.
One month after appearing to win the election, he failed to form a coalition government. Rather than risk losing the premiership to another contender, he chose to push parliament to disband and force another national vote. Fresh polls are set for 17 September, the first time the country has held two elections in one year.
Famed for 11th-hour brinkmanship and daring political gambits, many expect Netanyahu to win. But even then, he faces possibly the biggest challenge of his political career to date: the prospect of three corruption indictments.
Just weeks after the election, he will be called to a pre-trial hearing. Israel’s attorney general has already recommended he be indicted.
One case involves allegations of receiving gifts, including cigars and champagne from international billionaires, allegedly in exchange for favours. In another, Netanyahu was accused of colluding with the country’s top-selling newspaper to hurt its competition in exchange for favourable coverage.
A third case involves allegations that Netanyahu offered incentives to the Israeli telecoms provider Bezeq in exchange for positive stories on a news website it owns.
Netanyahu has denied all accusations, dismissing them as a witch-hunt orchestrated by the media. He is not legally required to step down unless he is convicted and all his appeals are rejected.