Benjamin Netanyahu: Who is Israel’s longest-serving leader?

Known as ‘Bibi’, Netanyahu joined the Israeli army in 1967, became an elite commando, and served as a captain during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

After serving in the Israeli Army, Benjamin Netanyahu assumed various roles under Israel's foreign ministry until he won his first general election in 1996 [File: Miriam Alster/Reuters]

Informally known as “Bibi” and currently being investigated for corruption, Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving, most right-wing prime minister to date, and the first Israel-born politician to become leader.

This is his story from Washington and back to Tel Aviv.

European roots

The son of a “Revisionist Zionist” from Poland, Netanyahu traces some of his roots to Spain.

  • Zionist father: Born in Jaffa (now known as Tel Aviv) in 1949 to a settler family, Netanyahu grew up in Jerusalem and went to high school in the United States.
  • His mother, Tzila Segal, was an Israeli-born Jew and his father Benzion Netanyahu was a secular Jew from Poland. His father, born Benzion Mileikowsky, changed his name to Benzion Netanyahu after he settled in Palestine.
  • Netanyahu’s father was one of the original Revisionist Zionists who believed that Israel should exist on both sides of the Jordan River, rejecting compromises with neighbouring Arab states.
  • In 1967, Benjamin Netanyahu joined the Israeli army and soon became an elite commando and served as captain during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
  • Saliva test: In 2016, Netanyahu said that his brother had done a DNA test, and “it came out that at least some of that tree needs to be attributed to the Jews of Spain.”

Rise to power

After serving in the Israeli army, Netanyahu assumed various roles under Israel’s foreign ministry until he won in the general elections in 1996.

  • Ambassador: In 1982, Netanyahu was appointed deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington. In 1984, he was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
  • In 1988, Netanyahu was appointed as deputy foreign minister in the cabinet of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
  • Likud chairman: Rising to the post of the right-wing Likud Party chairman in 1993, Netanyahu orchestrated the party’s return to political power after its defeat in the 1992 election.
  • Later, Netanyahu lost the Likud leadership to Ariel Sharon, and regained it only after Sharon left Likud to form Kadima in 2005.
  • Four-time PM: Campaigning under the slogan “a strong prime minister”, his Likud Party managed to gain enough seats for him to form a coalition with fellow right-wing parties Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas.
  • Netanyahu won the elections in 1996, in 2009, 2013, and 2015.
  • To critics such as Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence organisation, Netanyahu holds an inflated sense of entitlement. Diskin once said: “At play inside Netanyahu, in my opinion, is a mix of ideology, a deep sense that he is a prince of a ‘royal family’ from the Jerusalem elite, alongside insecurity and a deep fear of taking responsibility.”
  • To supporters, he is a strong spokesperson for Israel, willing to tell the public uncomfortable truths and able to stand up to enemies.

‘Three no’s’

Netanyahu has a “three no’s” mantra: no Palestinian state, no return of the Golan Heights to Syria and no discussion on the future status of Jerusalem.

  • Despite opposing most peace deals with the Palestinians, Netanyahu signed the Wye River Accords in 1998 with Yasser Arafat, who was then the president of the Palestinian National Authority.
  • Netanyahu resigned as foreign minister in August 2005, in protest against Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza, part of the Palestinian territory.

Jerusalem status

  • Obama criticism: Netanyahu’s relationship with former US President Barack Obama has been described as “frosty”, as Obama has, on occasion, criticised the continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
  • “We will carrying on building in Jerusalem and in all the places that are on the map of Israel’s strategic interests,” Netanyahu said.
  • Trump reset: The election of Donald Trump was eagerly greeted by Netanyahu.
  • Coming after a rocky eight years in US-Israel relations under Obama, their meeting in Washington, DC was intended to signal a “reset” in relations between the two.
  • On December 6, Trump broke with decades of US policy and has announced that the US formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will begin the process of moving its embassy to the city.
  • Netanyahu welcomed the decision, and said it was “a historic day” for Israel. Jerusalem “has been the capital of Israel for nearly 70 years”, he said in a statement.
  • Biden call: A delay in Biden’s first phone call to the Israeli prime minister raised speculation that the Democratic president was signalling displeasure with Netanyahu’s close ties with former President Donald Trump, who called the right-wing leader two days after his inauguration in 2017.
  • Netanyahu has acknowledged differences with Biden about Iranian and Palestinian issues, but said the two enjoy a strong working relationship.

Netanyahu may find the two countries’ alliance tested if Washington restores US participation in the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew, and opposes Israeli settlement building on occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood.

Anti-Iran rhetoric

  • During his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu addressed the US Congress, telling legislators that “time is running out” to deal with Iran. “The deadline for attaining this goal is extremely close,” he said.
  • Bibi does not believe leaders of Iran are necessarily rational and has said Iran poses an “existential threat” to Israel. He has threatened unilateral military action against Iran on several occasions.
  • “As long as I am prime minister, Iran will not have an atomic bomb,” he said in 2013. “If there’s no other way, Israel is ready to act [with force].”

Corruption scandal  

  • Netanyahu was indicted in 2019 in long-running cases involving gifts from millionaire friends and for allegedly seeking regulatory favours for media tycoons in return for favourable coverage.
  • The charges against him have been a central issue during three elections in which no clear winner emerged.
  • Netanyahu pleaded not guilty before a three-judge panel in a heavily guarded Jerusalem District Court.
  • The court ruled that evidence in the trial would be heard following the election, starting on April 5.

Coronavirus pandemic

  • Netanyahu, who turned Israel’s world-leading rollout of vaccines into a showcase of his campaign in the country’s fourth national poll in two years, has claimed victory over COVID-19 by making Israel a “vaccination nation”.
  • About half of the population has been inoculated at a pace that drew international praise for Netanyahu but also calls for Israel to do more to ensure Palestinians in the territories it occupies receive vaccines.
  • Political opponents have said he mishandled the pandemic from the start, pointing to the need for three national lockdowns and accusing him of turning a blind eye to violators within the ultra-Orthodox community that provides a power base for his key coalition partners.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies