Israel's Netanyahu: A master political survivor

Monday May 18 2020

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and alternate PM Benny Gantz during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalem. AFP PHOTO 


Israel's longest-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads a new unity government sworn in on Sunday, is a veteran right-winger who has spent years outlasting his political opponents.
The 70-year-old is also the first premier in Israeli history to be indicted in office, hit by corruption charges that threatened to end his political career.
Under an unprecedented power-sharing government formed with one-time rival Benny Gantz that was sworn in on Sunday, Netanyahu will stay on for 18 months, extending his record term as premier.

The three-year agreement ends Israel's worst political crisis following three inconclusive elections within a year.
Under the deal, the centrist Gantz will then take over as premier for another 18 months before Israel likely heads to new polls.

On March 2, Netanyahu had pulled off what appeared to be another remarkable victory, as his Likud party won the most seats in a general election, despite his indictment.
His corruption trial, which had been scheduled to start in March, was delayed until May 24 as part of the measures taken by Israel to control the coronavirus pandemic.
The burly son of a historian with a grey comb-over hairstyle and deep voice has entrenched himself at the top so firmly he has been labelled "King Bibi", referring to his childhood nickname.

The Likud party chief has stayed in power with a mix of divisive populism and the image of a world statesman close to foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin -- but especially US President Donald Trump.
Netanyahu was standing next to the US leader at the White House when Trump unveiled his controversial Middle East peace proposal in late January.
The premier said the proposal -- widely seen as heavily skewed towards Israel -- was earned in part through his personal bond with Trump.

Brother's death
Netanyahu has spent several years fending off corruption accusations.
But he was ultimately charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he received improper gifts and illegally traded favours with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
He denies the allegations.
Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, less than 18 months after Israel's creation. He and his wife Sara have two sons, and he has a daughter from a previous marriage.
The son of a history professor active in Israeli right-wing politics, Netanyahu grew up partly in the United States.

He attended the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and with his fluent, American-accented English would appear on television speaking forcefully in defence of Israel.
He performed his Israeli military service with an elite unit and was wounded in combat, but another family member's service may have affected him more deeply.
In 1976, his brother Yonatan died in an Israeli commando raid to rescue hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda.
Netanyahu has described that operation as "a very dramatic national experience" and "one of great personal consequence".


- 'Too pragmatic' -
Israeli politics in its early years was dominated by the Labour party, but the first victory by the Likud in 1977, when it was then led by Menachem Begin, helped lay the groundwork for Netanyahu's political future.
His career took off when he was posted to the Israeli embassy in Washington and he later served as ambassador to the United Nations.
Aged 46, he became Israel's youngest-ever premier in 1996, after he had risen to international attention with his multiple appearances on CNN as Israel's deputy foreign minister following Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Netanyahu was defeated three years later, but would return to power in 2009 and has remained in office ever since.

Israel's economy prospered under his watch but, as in many countries, unemployment soared during the coronavirus pandemic.
While he has always maintained a devoted following among his right-wing base, many call Netanyahu's politics too divisive.
They accuse him of scare tactics and pitting Israelis against each other by castigating those who disagree.
His biographer Neill Lochery, author of "The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu", said: "The trouble that the world had in dealing with Netanyahu was not that he was an ideologue."
The problem, he wrote, was rather "that he was too pragmatic, and prone to change his mind in order to curry favour with key voting groups in Israel".