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Bibi looks to Sept 17 - and also to Nov 2020

Pundits are saying Netanyahu is likely to win a fifth term, but that he would also be looking to see who the next occupant in the White House is. The current one has been a big ally

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Election banners in the Likud Party's headquarters in Tel Aviv trumpet Benjamin Netanyahu's key allies across the world.

THREE 10-storey-high posters are hanging from the roof of the ruling Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv: On one side of the building, a poster shows the party's leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hanging out with US President Donald Trump, Israel's top global ally and close personal friend.

On the poster on another side of the building, Bibi (as Mr Netanyahu is also known) is smiling alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, who apparently holds the Israeli PM in high regard and has invited him to Moscow several times in recent years.

The poster on the third side of the building shows Bibi shaking hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, highlighting the strengthening ties between India and Israel under the leadership of the Hindu nationalist and the staunch Zionist.

The blossoming of this relationship comes just as Jerusalem has been diplomatically active in the rest of Asia as well; he has visited China, Japan and South Korea, and signed economic and security agreements there.

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At the foot of each of the three posters in Tel Aviv is the slogan: "Netanyahu. A Different League", which aims to send a clear message to Israelis, due to vote in crucial parliamentary elections on Sept 17.

Most political observers expect Bibi to head the next Israeli government, and become the longest-serving premier in Israeli history, entering an unprecedented fifth term in office after having transformed Israel into a major global player and an economic superpower.

The question, however, is whether the Likud and its traditional allies among the right-wing and religious parties can win more than the 60 seats required to form a coalition in the 120-member Parliament (the Knesset). Another possible outcome could find PM Netanyahu setting up a national-unity government with the centrist Kahol-Lavan (Blue-White) party led by the former Israel Defence Forces (IDF) chief, General Benjamin Gantz, now retired.

That 69-year-old Mr Netanyahu may serve at least another term in office is, in itself, a political magic act; while admirers hail him as the "King of Israel", he is loathed by Israelis on the political left.

Consider that since 2016, the Likud leader has been under investigation by Israeli police and prosecutors for alleged corruption scandals; the probe culminated this year in the Attorney-General announcing his intent to file indictments against the prime minister.

But, not unlike Americans who continue to support President Trump despite allegations of ethical misbehaviour and corruption, many Israeli-Jewish voters are willing to forgive the popular Bibi for his alleged personal sins as they bask in the fruit of the country's economic growth. (Israel's exports and foreign investments have expanded, reflecting its emergence as a major centre of high-tech industries and a scientific powerhouse.)

Israeli-Jewish voters also credit their PM with protecting their country against the combined threat of Muslim terrorism and of an aggressive Iran, which Mr Netanyahu insists is seeking to gain access to nuclear military power and to destroy the Jewish state.

In addition to encouraging President Trump to revoke the nuclear deal with Iran signed by his predecessor in the White House, and to embrace a tougher posture vis-à-vis Iran, PM Netanyahu has been heading a groundbreaking initiative to foster diplomatic and security ties with the Sunni-Arab nations of the Middle East - part of a cooperative strategy to contain the threat of Shiite Iran and its regional satellites.

The result is that Israel is cultivating diplomatic ties with its former enemies - not only Egypt, the largest and most militarily powerful Arab state, and neighbouring Jordan, but also Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Arab Gulf states.

This détente between Israel and the Arab world not only strengthens the Jewish state's strategic position, but also raises the long-term chances of a move towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

This could perhaps be along the lines of President Trump's much anticipated "Deal of the Century" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, scheduled to be unveiled after the Israeli parliamentary election next month.

There is no doubt that one of the main reasons for PM Netanyahu's political resurgence has been the presence of a staunch pro-Israel president in the White House; Mr Trump has taken major steps to strengthen US ties with Israel, including by recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and its annexation of the Golan Heights in 1967, and by relocating the American Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

PM Netanyahu believes that the election of President Trump swept to power nationalist and right-wing governments in, for example, Brazil, Poland and Hungary and, more recently, in Britain. These developments dovetail with the interests of Israel, now facing harsh criticism from left-leaning political parties in the West for its treatment of the Palestinians on the West Bank.

The political dilemmas that PM Netanyahu's political love affair with President Trump were highlighted recently when two leading US Democratic critics of the Jewish state, legislators Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), announced their plan to visit Israel.

The Israeli government was under no illusions about the purpose of the visit by the pair, who are the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, and who support the international campaign to boycott Israel and to reverse the pro-Israeli direction of US policy.

Representative Omar, who was born in Somalia, and Representative Tlaib, a daughter of Palestinian refugees, even insisted that they were going to visit Palestine and not Israel.

But recognising the need to maintain the friendship with the Democratic Party, the political home of the majority of American-Jews - whose candidate may defeat President Trump in the 2020 election - Israel agreed initially to allow them to visit the country.

But President Trump, who has bashed the congresswomen and even urged them to "go back" to their countries of origin, pressed Israel to reverse its decision, leaving his buddy in Jerusalem no choice but to bar them from entering Israel. Bibi's move touched off a wave of criticism from leading Democrats and American Jews and other supporters of Israel.

The incident raises concerns in Israel about the future shape of the American-Israeli relationship if King Bibi remains on the throne after Sept 17.

But if his friend in Washington is ousted from the White House next November, even Israel's top political magician may find the going a major challenge.