His face beams down from election billboard depicting him as a statesman, shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump. Opponents portray him as a criminal.
Even before he called an election for April 9, he was branded “CRIME MINISTER” in huge banners at protest rallies, a reference to three corruption investigations threatening his decade of political dominance.
In power since 2009, after a first stint as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, the man ardent supporters hail as “King Bibi” has struck a chord with an electorate that has moved to the right and watched with delight as, under Trump, Washington lined up with many of Netanyahu’s policies.
That has included U.S. withdrawal from the international deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and a cut-off of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority over its refusal to resume peace talks that collapsed in 2014.
But in February Israel’s attorney-general announced he intends to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges in three cases. It was the first time a serving Israeli prime minister has been put on official notice of planned prosecution, and deepened uncertainty over how Netanyahu, a veteran right-wing leader, will fare against a coalition of upstart centrist rivals.
He has denied wrongdoing, saying he is a victim of a left-wing witchhunt to topple him and that he has no intention of resigning. But his opponents are attacking his record and underlining the need for clean governance.
An actual filing of the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust would depend on the outcome of a required hearing, the Justice Ministry said. That could take months to complete.
Palestinian leaders have had little to say about the Israeli election, maintaining their traditional policy of watching quietly from the sidelines.
They have already broken off contacts with the Trump administration, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Any new Netanyahu government would be likely to include veteran allies opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.
His first high-profile political assignment was Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, in 1984.
He won a seat in parliament with the right-wing Likud party in 1988 and was also named deputy foreign minister.
In 1996, after he narrowly beat then Prime Minister Shimon Peres by less than one per cent., Netanyahu, a burly former army commando known as “Bibi”, became the youngest prime minister Israel has had at 46.
If he wins, he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister this summer.