JERUSALEM – Benjamin Netanyahu, who appeared closer than ever to leaving office Wednesday as a coalition of rivals said they had formed a government, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
The wily 71-year-old, widely known as Bibi, has clung to a record 12 years in power through several conflicts and a long period of political turmoil, despite also facing trial for alleged fraud, bribery and breach of trust — charges he denies.
A hawkish heavyweight, he has repeatedly convinced voters only he can keep Israel safe from threats, including Palestinian militants and Iran.
In recent years, Netanyahu clinched historic normalisation agreements with four Arab states and unrolled a world-beating Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
Troubles began in March, when he failed again to achieve a conclusive result in Israel’s fourth election in less than two years.
On Sunday, right-wing religious nationalist and former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett’s announced he would join a coalition, alongside centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid.
By Wednesday, Lapid announced he had gathered support from seven parties, which could be enough to finally oust the master political survivor.
However, Israel’s 120-member parliament must still approve the new coalition, cobbled together from parties ranging from pro-settlement hardliners to conservative Islamists and secular Jewish liberals.
If Netanyahu cannot peel away any of the coalition’s supporters before the vote, he would have to step down.
– Indicted whilst in office –
Netanyahu is the son of a historian who was active in right-wing Zionist groups, an ideological inheritance that helped shape his political career.
Addressing the World Holocaust Forum last year, Netanyahu said the Jewish people must “always take seriously the threats of those who seek our destruction”.
He warned Israelis “to confront threats even when they are small and, above all, to always have the power to defend ourselves by ourselves”.
An occasional cigar smoker with a deep baritone voice and silver comb-over, Netanyahu has two sons with his wife Sara and a daughter from a previous marriage.
His brother, Yonatan, was the only Israeli soldier killed in a 1976 commando raid to free hostages at Uganda’s Entebbe airport.
Netanyahu called the event, which marked him deeply, “a very dramatic national experience” and “one of great personal consequence”.
He was raised partly in the United States, and graduated from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His fluent English made him a fixture on US television, defending Israeli policies throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, exposure that raised his profile both at home and abroad.
A sceptic of the Oslo Peace Accords, Netanyahu became Likud’s leader in 1993 and led the party to victory as Israel’s youngest-ever prime minister in 1996, aged 46.
He lost power in 1999, but regained it 10 years later, holding on even as he became the first sitting Israeli prime minister indicted while in office.
He is accused of accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage — allegations which he denies.
– ‘Mr. Security’ –
Netanyahu did not engage in substantive peace talks with the Palestinians, who were angered by a boom in expansion of Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements.
Weeks of escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians peaked last month in an 11-day exchange of rocket fire from Gaza and devastating Israeli air strikes.
Israeli strikes on Gaza killed 254 Palestinians, including 66 children, health officials said.
Israeli medics said rockets and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, before a May 21 truce.
The fighting, as well as violence in the occupied West Bank and in mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli towns, initially appeared to strengthen Netanyahu’s grip on power.
But political scientist Gayil Talshir at the Hebrew University said it had pushed Netanyahu into “a desperate position”.
Netanyahu, who has long branded himself as “Mr Security”, frequently warned of the threat posed by Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and its backer Iran — a regime he calls the greatest threat to the Jewish people since Nazi Germany.
Thwarting Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme was a centrepiece of his foreign policy.
But on occasion he also angered Israel’s allies.
In one controversial episode, he addressed a joint session of the US Congress in 2015 without having been invited by then-president Barack Obama — using the platform to condemn Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Obama wrote in his presidential memoir, “A Promised Land”, that Netanyahu’s “vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power.”