Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu: A master political survivor

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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 and US President Donald Trump.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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 and US President Donald Trump.PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, 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, accused of corruption charges that threatened to end his political career.

But exit polls following Israel's election on Monday (March 2) put Netanyahu on track to form the next government, defying forecasts that the charges against him could lead to his demise.

The burly son of a historian with the familiar 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 leader prefers the title "Mr Security" and 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 - and 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 plan last month.

The premier said the proposal - widely seen as heavily skewed towards Israel - was earned in part through his personal bond with Trump and claimed it could only be implemented if he was re-elected.

A hardliner on Iran and the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu promised to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if re-elected, a pledge many regarded as a play for vital right-wing votes.

That and his stated intention to annex Israeli settlements in the wider West Bank could effectively end any remaining hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

BROTHER'S DEATH

Netanyahu has spent several years fighting off corruption accusations.

 
 
 

But he was ultimately charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he received improper gifts and offered a media mogul profitable regulatory changes in exchange for positive coverage.

He denies the allegations, with his trial set to open on March 17.

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 called the operation "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 Israel's 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.

While Israel's economy has prospered under his watch and his security credentials have shored up his right-wing base, many call his 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".