Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his party's election campaign event in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv on March 4, 2019. (Abir Sultan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A combative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally launched his election campaign Monday, urging his supporters to rally around him because victory was no longer guaranteed amid his mounting legal woes. 

“We have to win,” he told hundreds of members of his Likud party in a hotel just outside Tel Aviv. His supporters stood on chairs and cheered so loudly that the prime minister’s words were barely audible. 

“Bibi, king of Israel,” chanted the crowd, using Netanyahu’s nickname in a twist on a Hebrew song about the biblical King David. Thousands more gathered to watch the Israeli leader speak on screens set up outside.   

With just 35 days to go before Israeli elections, Netanyahu is feeling the heat. Calls for his resignation have increased since Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit informed Netanyahu’s legal team Thursday of plans to charge the prime minister with fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three criminal cases, pending a hearing in which he can present his defense. Netanyahu has maintained his innocence and called the legal cases against him a left-wing plot. 

In the meantime, the prime minister has slipped to second place in opinion polls, trailing a joint ticket of former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and Netanyahu’s longtime rival Yair Lapid. In a concerning turn for the prime minister, the polls now also indicate that Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc may struggle to win enough seats in the parliament, or Knesset, to form a governing coalition, even if he prevails in the election. 

Netanyahu said it would be a “tough battle” due to efforts by the left wing and media to “remove me from the playing field” through corruption allegations. 

The atmosphere at the campaign rally was at times tense, as the prime minister’s most ardent supporters rubbed up against journalists. Attendees berated famous television news journalists for being left-wing or anti-Netanyahu. From the podium, the prime minister accused the media of “brainwashing” the public. Any mention of the media or his opponents was met with loud jeers.

“Netanyahu. Right. Strong,” read signs waved by his supporters. Netanyahu’s campaign has branded Gantz and Lapid’s Blue and White party as weak “lefties” who would team up with Arab parties, including that of the prominent Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi. 

Netanyahu began his new slogan but didn’t need to finish it: “In the end it’s Bibi or —” 

“Tibi!” the crowd yelled. 

“I want to remind anyone who votes for Gantz and Lapid . . . that they are really voting to bring in a left-wing government,” he said.

Gantz and Lapid have presented themselves as neither left nor right, instead running on a message of unity in an increasingly polarized political atmosphere. 

Netanyahu spoke at length about his relationships with world leaders, stressing his diplomatic credentials. “There are days when I meet with a world leader in the morning, another at lunchtime and another in the evening,” he said.  

Yoav Kisch, a Likud parliament member, said his party was not worried about the opinion polls. But he said there is an awareness that “this election will be hard,” as it will come down to which political bloc can muster a governing coalition.

Effi Lahav, who had traveled to the rally from Jerusalem, said confidently that the Blue and White party’s lead would be “short-lived.”

“We came to protest the lack of justice by law enforcers and the media against the Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said. 

Shalom Hai from the city of Petah Tikva said he had been a Likud member for 50 years. “What they are doing to Netanyahu is evil,” said Hai. “We need to wait for a court case, for a conviction, and only then can we decide.”

Morris reported from Britain.