‘King Bibi’ holds on for third term as Israel’s PM
Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tapped on Saturday to form a new government for a third successive term, cuts a figure of admiration and loathing at home and abroad.
A May 2012 cover of Time magazine hailed him as “King Bibi,” using his nickname, but former French president Nicolas Sarkozy branded him a “liar” in a private conversation with US President Barack Obama.
The hawkish Netanyahu has been tasked with a third successive term as prime minister, following an initial 1996-1999 mandate that made him the Jewish state’s youngest ever premier.
Netanyahu’s rise on the international stage dates back to executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait after which the articulate Bibi gave countless interviews on CNN television.
Despised by much of the local media and the target of jabs by foreign leaders, the 63-year-old Netanyahu was riding high in polls ahead of the January 22 election although the final results were less convincing for his rightwing bloc.
Netanyahu, once dubbed The Magician for his ability to outwit political rivals, will now need his famous horse-trading skills to build a government with a working majority.
Smooth-talking and ever ready with a sound bite in slick American-English, he was defeated in 1999 polls by Labour chief Ehud Barak who campaigned under the slogan “Anyone but Bibi”.
Six years later, he served as both foreign minister and finance minister under Likud premier Ariel Sharon.
In late 2005, he took over as Likud leader after Sharon left to found Kadima, and led the party to a humiliating defeat in the 2006 election. But the party bounced back in 2009.
The stocky leader with the trademark comb-over has had a difficult relationship with several world leaders, notably Obama.
Over the past four years, the two have clashed over the peace process with the Palestinians and how to handle Iran, which Israel and much of the West see as a guise for developing a weapons capability, a charge Tehran denies.
Media reports ahead of the election suggested Obama saw Netanyahu as a “political coward” on the peace process, with his ongoing settlement activity moving Israel “down a path toward near total isolation”.
Born on October 21, 1949, Netanyahu was educated in the United States after his father Bentzion, a history professor, was considered so rightwing in the Labour-dominated Israel of the time that he was forced to leave.
Before attending the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he served in an elite Israeli army commando unit, took part in a number of operations and was wounded. He was discharged with the rank of captain.
He was deeply affected by the death of his elder brother Jonathan, killed leading the legendary 1976 Israeli commando raid on an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinians to Entebbe, Uganda.
Netanyahu then plunged into studies of terrorism, writing three books on the subject.
His career took off when he was posted to Israel’s embassy in Washington and later made ambassador to the United Nations, before he launched a political career that has also seen him hold the foreign affairs and finance portfolios.
He only accepted the concept of a Palestinian state for the first time in 2009. Yet he has done little to move forward in negotiations, and his government has pushed through the highest number of settler homes in a decade.
Grandson of a rabbi, he has doggedly insisted the Palestinians recognise Israel as a “Jewish state” and has rejected their condition for restarting stalled peace talks — freeze on settlement construction.
Netanyahu has vowed not to remove any Jewish settlements and has ruled out any future freeze on construction beyond the so-called Green Line, the line that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.
On the personal level, his wife Sarah has been a figure of controversy.
She has faced repeated accusations in the Israeli press of abusing her domestic staff and leading an extravagant lifestyle at the expense of business donors to her husband’s party.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]