Why Benjamin Netanyahu Matters:
Benjamin Netanyahu, often referred to as “Bibi,” is one of the most polarizing and hawkish figures in Israeli politics. On March 31, 2009, he was sworn in as prime minister for the second time after Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, who narrowly defeated him in the Feb. 10 election, failed to form a coalition. Netanyahu opposes withdrawing from the West Bank or slowing settlement growth there, and generally opposes negotiating with Palestinians. Ideologically driven by revisionist Zionist principles, Netanyahu nevertheless displayed a pragmatic, centrist streak in his first stint as prime minister (1996-1999).
Youth and Life Before Politics:
Benjamin Netanyahu was born on Oct. 21, 1949 in Tel Aviv, the son of historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu, one of the editors of the Hebrew Encyclopedias
. Benjamin grew up in Jerusalem before attending high school in suburban Philadelphia from 1963 to 1967. Back in Israel for military service (1967-1973) he served in an anti-terrorist commando unit, winning some distinction when he took part in the rescue of a Sabena airliner at Ben-Gurion airport in 1972 (the rescue was organized by future political rival Ehud Barak
Netanyahu also served in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, rising to the rank of captain.
He then got an architecture and business management degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked in corporate jobs in the United States from 1976 to 1982, absorbing American ways of business, marketing and media savvy. He has been married three times, fathering a daughter and two sons along the way and admitting, during his first campaign for prime minister in 1996, to an extra-marital affair.
Two factors appreciably influenced Netanyahu’s thinking: The first was the Zionist ideology of his father, who had been a senior aid to Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist Zionist Party that became Likud
(Jabotinsky believed in an Israel that included the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan; later Zionist thinking ceded Jordan to Jordanians.)
The second was his brother’s death as he led Israel’s rescue operation of Israeli hostages at Uganda’s Entebe airport in 1976. Netanyahu wrote a book, Fighting Terrorism, and subsequently let the title drive his life’s mission.
First Move into Politics: Washington and the United Nations:
By 1982 the Netanyahu name was well-known in Israel because of the scjolarly father in the family and the heroic son killed at Entebe. In 1982, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Moshe Arens, appointed Netanyahu deputy, a position Netanyahu used to project Israel’s hard-like policies through his powerful television personality. In 1984 he became Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations until Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir named him deputy foreign minister in 1988, then deputy information minister—a post that was part of the prime minister’s cabinet—in 1991.
Taking Over Likud, Blasting the Peace Process:
In 1992 the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Rabin
defeated Shamir and became prime minister for the second time. Out of power, Netanyahu took over the Likud Party in 1993 (by defeating Benjamin Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menahem Begin) and maintained fierce opposition to Rabin’s peace overtures toward the Palestinians. Netanhayu rejected the Oslo accords of 1993 outlining eventual autonomy for Palestine but embraced the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 as “a blessing.” At rallies, Netanyahu frequently approved of and contributed to poisoned rhetoric opposing Rabin’s policies. Rabin was assassinated
Prime Minister Netanyahu, 1996-1999:
As the peace process deteriorated following Rabin’s assassination and Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli targets increased, Netanyahu’s hard-line increasingly appealed to Israelis. But Netanyahu also moved to the center as he campaigned for prime minister, accepting the Oslo accords and toning down his rhetoric against Arabs.
Using slick, American-style campaign ads and message discipline, he won and signed two agreements ostensibly furthering the peace process: The Hebron Agreement of 1997 ceded 80% of the West Bank city of Hebron back to Palestinians (20% remained occupied by troops and a Jewish settlement).
The Wye River Agreement
of 1998 promised further withdrawals from the West Bank. The apparent pragmatism, coaxed and pressured out of Netanyahu by U.S. President Bill Clinton, contrasted with Netanyahu’s skilled foot-dragging and obstructionism while he lifted the freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank.
In effect, Netanyahu managed to scuttle the very agreements he signed, earning disdain from the Clinton administration and losing face with the Israeli public. An old commander, Ehud Barak, defeated him for prime minister in 1999.
Netanyahu Since 2000:
Netanyahu’s pragmatist days vanished as he was again out of power and looking to capitalize on an Israeli public increasingly disenchanted by the peace process. From 2002 to 2005 he served under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as foreign minister and finance minister, vastly liberalizing the Israeli economy while slashing social services. But Netanyahu resigned in protest after Sharon unilaterally ceded Gaza back to Palestinians. When Sharon founded the more centrist Kadima Party, Netanyahu took over as Likud leader.
Netanyahu’s rhetoric became increasingly inflamed as Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2006 and the conflict with Gaza intensified. He vowed to crush Hamas if elected prime minister, renounced the Oslo accords, and spoke against dismantling settlements in the West Bank. He looked like a close favorite for the Feb. 10, 2009 election. He was narrowly defeated by Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party leader and foreign minister. But Livni failed to form a coalition.
Netanyahu prophetically claimed victory the night of the election: “The question is not what the polls say. The question is what the reality is. From this day on, the right wing bloc rises to an absolute majority in the Knesset,” he said. “There is no doubt regarding our own movement's meteoric rise. In the last Knesset we had only 12 seats, 10% of the Knesset. We have more than doubled our power and grown more than any other party.”