Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu: Commando turned PM

Benjamin Netanyahu will pass a political landmark to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, if he stays in office beyond 31 May 2019.

This would be a remarkable achievement for a politician who was branded by critics as too inexperienced when he was narrowly elected for the first time in 1996.

As he nears the record-breaking marker though, Mr Netanyahu may have to fight for his political survival, as police investigate a series of corruption allegations against him.

A shrewd political operator, he has dismissed the claims as a witch-hunt engineered by his opponents.

For years, Benjamin Netanyahu has portrayed himself as the person who can best keep Israel safe in the “tough neighbourhood” of the Middle East.

He has taken a hard line towards the Palestinians, putting Israel’s security concerns at the top of any discussion of peace.

When asked recently by a London think-tank how he would want to be remembered, he said as “the protector of Israel. The one who created the means to be sure of the country’s future.”

Military record

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949. In 1963 his family moved to the US when his father Benzion, the historian and Zionist activist, was offered an academic post.

At the age of 18, Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel, where he spent five distinguished years in the army, serving as a captain in an elite commando unit, the Sayeret Matkal. He took part in a raid on Beirut’s airport in 1968 and fought in the 1973 Middle East war.

After his military service ended, Mr Netanyahu went back to the US, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1976, Mr Netanyahu’s brother, Jonathan, was killed leading a raid to rescue hostages from a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda. His death had a profound impact on the Netanyahu family, and his name became legendary in Israel.

Mr Netanyahu set up an anti-terrorism institute in his brother’s memory and in 1982 became Israel’s deputy chief of mission in Washington.

Overnight, Mr Netanyahu’s public life was launched. An articulate English speaker with a distinctive American accent, he became a familiar face on US television and an effective advocate of the Israeli cause.

Mr Netanyahu was appointed Israel’s permanent representative at the UN in New York in 1984.

Limited withdrawal

Only in 1988, when he returned to Israel, did he become involved in domestic politics, winning a seat in the Knesset (parliament) and becoming deputy foreign minister.

Politically, Benjamin Netanyahu positioned himself to the right of previous leaders of the Likud party. After Likud lost the 1992 general election, he became party chairman.

In 1996, he became Israel’s first directly elected prime minister after an early election following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr Netanyahu was also Israel’s youngest prime minister and the first to be born after the state was founded in 1948.

His first term was brief but dramatic, beset by divisions in his coalition.

Despite having fiercely criticised the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, in 1997 Mr Netanyahu signed a deal handing over 80% of Hebron to Palestinian Authority control and signed the Wye River Memorandum in 1998 outlining further withdrawals from the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu survived rather than prospered, and lost office in 1999 after he called elections 17 months early. He was defeated by Labour leader Ehud Barak, Mr Netanyahu’s former commander, who promised to push for a permanent peace deal and withdraw from southern Lebanon.

Political revival

Mr Netanyahu resigned as a member of the Knesset and chairman of Likud following the election loss. He was succeeded as Likud leader by Ariel Sharon.

Life and times

After Mr Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, Mr Netanyahu returned to government, first as foreign minister and then as finance minister. In 2005, he resigned in protest at the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

His chance came again in 2005, when Mr Sharon – just before a massive stroke that left him in a coma – split from Likud and set up a new centrist party, Kadima.

Mr Netanyahu won the Likud leadership and was elected prime minister for the second time in March 2009.

His government was criticised by some in the international community for not renewing a partial freeze on Jewish settlement-building and possibly avoiding a collapse in peace talks with the Palestinians in late 2010.

He publicly accepted the concept of a demilitarised Palestinian state, but insisted the Palestinians accept Israel as a “Jewish state” in turn and make reciprocal concessions.

In 2015 he distanced himself from accepting the prospect of a state, dismissing it as irrelevant given the rise of militant Islam across the Middle East.

US relations

In late 2012 he called early elections, and weeks after parliament was dissolved Mr Netanyahu ordered a major offensive against militants in Gaza after an escalation of rocket-fire into Israel.

He called off the operation without sending in ground troops, with all the risks that would entail, and the eight-day operation was widely regarded in Israel as a success.

However, after a relative lull, cross-border violence flared again and after a surge of rocket attacks in July 2014, Mr Netanyahu launched another offensive on Gaza with the stated aim of restoring long-term quiet for Israel.

The 50-day war left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians, according to UN and Palestinian officials. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and six civilians were killed.

Although during the conflict Israel had the support of the United States, its closest ally, relations between Mr Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama were difficult.

They reached a low point when Mr Netanyahu addressed Congress in March 2015, warning against a “bad deal” arising out of US negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme. The Obama administration severely rebuked the visit as interfering and damaging.

Mr Netanyahu has taken a hard line towards Iran, repeatedly warning of the danger to the international community of leaving it with the capacity to develop nuclear weapons.

He has called for much tougher sanctions against Iran, seeing it as the number one threat to Israel, and indicated his willingness to use force to stop Iran’s nuclear programme if all else fails.

The advent of the Trump presidency aligned Israel and the US more closely, and within a year Donald Trump announced his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The move sparked fury across the Arab world – which supports the Palestinians’ claim to the eastern half occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war – but it handed Mr Netanyahu a major political and diplomatic coup.

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