Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu
(1949 - )
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is a former Israeli special forces commando, diplomat, and politician. He was the longest-serving prime minister of Israel.
Bad Chemistry with Obama
From Obama to Trump
2019 Election Debacle
Netanyahu was born on October 21, 1949, in Tel Aviv, grew up in Jerusalem, and spent his adolescent years in the United States, where his father Benzion– a noted historian – taught Jewish history in Philadelphia.
In 1967, at the age of 18, Netanyahu returned to Israel to fulfill his military obligation in the Israel Defense Forces and volunteered for an elite commando unit. During his service, he participated in a number of daring operations, including Operation Gift during the War of Attrition that freed hostages from a hijacked Sabena Airlines aircraft being held in Beirut, Lebanon. Netanyahu was wounded during this operation. He was discharged from the IDF after six years of service, having attained the rank of captain following the Yom Kippur War.
Following his discharge, Netanyahu studied at MIT in Boston and received a B.S. in architecture and an M.S. in Management Studies. He also studied political science at MIT and Harvard University. In 1976, he was employed by the Boston Consulting Group, an international business consulting firm, where he befriended future American presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Netanyahu later joined the management of Rim Industries in Jerusalem.
Much affected by the death of his eldest brother Yoni Netanyahu – who had famously fallen while commanding the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation to free the passengers of an Air France airliner held hostage in Uganda – Bibi initiated and organized two international conferences on ways to combat international terrorism, one in 1979 in Jerusalem and the other in 1984 in Washington, D.C. These forums attracted key political figures and opinion-makers in the international community.
In 1982, Netanyahu joined Israel’s diplomatic mission in the United States, serving for two years as Deputy Chief of Mission under Ambassador Moshe Arens. He was also a member of the first delegation to the talks on strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States. In 1984, Netanyahu was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and held this position for four years. As U.N. ambassador, Netanyahu led the effort that opened the U.N. Nazi War Crimes Archives in 1987. An articulate speaker, forceful debater, and media-oriented diplomat, he played a key role in efforts to enhance Israel’s image and improve understanding of the country’s security needs among the American public and political elite.
After returning to Israel in 1988, Netanyahu entered the political arena and was elected a Member of the Knesset from the Likud party and was appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. He served in this position for four years, which were marked by the First Intifada, the 1991 Gulf War, and the Madrid Peace Conference.
On March 25, 1993, Netanyahu was elected Chairman of the Likud and its candidate for prime minister. He led the political opposition in the period prior to and following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – a time characterized by volatile public debate over the Oslo agreements and escalating Palestinian terrorism. Many Israelis on the political left accused Netanyahu and his supporters of creating the conditions in which Rabin could be killed by a fellow Jew through their extreme rhetoric denouncing Rabin and the agreements he signed with the Palestinians.
In 1996, in the first direct elections of an Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu defeated incumbent Labor candidate Shimon Peres and became the thirteenth and youngest prime minister of the State of Israel (and the ninth person to hold the position). He served in the position until the May 1999 elections when Labor Party leader Ehud Barak won the premiership.
After completing his term as Prime Minister, Netanyahu served as a business consultant to Israeli high-tech companies and was a popular speaker on the global lecture circuit. In 2002, he returned to politics, first as Minister of Foreign Affairs (November 2002 - February 2003) and then as Minister of Finance until August 2005.
In the February 2009 elections for the 18th Knesset, following the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s Likud Party won the second most seats; nevertheless, he was given the opportunity to form a coalition government since the Kadima Party, which won the most seats under the leadership of Tzipi Livni, could not secure a majority.
Bad Chemistry with Obama
During Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister, relations with the United States became frayed due to the lack of chemistry and policy differences with President Barack Obama. At the outset of his term, Obama made a number of decisions that upset Israel’s leaders, notably his decision to give a speech in Cairo without also visiting Israel, and demanding that Israel freeze settlements to reinvigorate the peace process with the Palestinians. Obama’s insistence that Israel stop building in East Jerusalem was particularly galling as Israel considers the entire city its capital and rejects the notion that Jews living there are “settlers.” Obama’s demand also went further than the Palestinians’ position to that point, as they had negotiated with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, without insisting that Israel stop building settlements.
Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank but not Jerusalem. Despite the concession, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas refused to enter negotiations for the duration of Obama’s term.
In May 2011, Netanyahu spoke before a joint session of the U.S. Congress and voiced his support for the creation of a Palestinian state, noting, however, that such a state would have to be demilitarized and could only be formed through direct, bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
In October 2012, Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, announced the merger of their two parties and plans to run on a joint ticket in the January 2013 general elections. During those elections, the Likud-Beiteinu partnership garnered a plurality of 31 seats, and, in March 2013, Netanyahu formed a majority coalition with the Yesh Atid Party (Yair Lapid) and The Jewish Home (Naftali Bennett). This 33rd government was sworn in on March 18, 2013, with Netanyahu as prime minister. He also retained for himself the portfolios for foreign affairs and public affairs.
In a last-ditch attempt to squeeze out as many far-right votes as he could, Netanyahu stated during an interview the day before the March 2015 election that there was no chance of the establishment of a Palestinian state while he was prime minister. In an interview with the Israeli news organization NRG, Netanyahu stated, “whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.” When asked if that meant that no Palestinian state would be established while he was Prime Minister, he responded, “indeed.”
Netanyahu declared victory over his political rivals as the last of the votes came in on the morning of March 18, 2015. The Likud Party received enough votes for 30 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, with the Zionist Union camp coming in second place, receiving enough votes for 24 seats. Netanyahu’s last-minute appeals to right-wing voters, which included what some commentators interpreted as a racist claim that Arab citizens were voting in “droves,” energized his base and helped his party win the election.
From Obama to Trump
Netanyahu’s comments infuriated the Obama administration, prompting Netanyahu to apologize for the remark about Arab voters and backpedal on his comments regarding a Palestinian state. In an interview on MSNBC, he insisted that he had not changed his policy from his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, but qualified his remarks by saying he was committed to Palestinian statehood only if the conditions in the Middle East improved.
Relations with the United States became especially tense over the issue of Iran as Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, negotiated a deal aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. When Netanyahu accepted an invitation to address a joint session of Congress in March 2015 to express his opposition to a deal with Iran, without first consulting the White House, relations with the administration reached their nadir.
The election of Donald Trump led to a dramatic reversal in relations with the White House as the new president expressed unabashedly pro-Israel positions during his campaign and at the outset of his administration, highlighted by the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv.
2019 Election Debacle
Netanyahu’s Likud Party won the most votes, but Benny Gantz’s new Kahol Lavan Party equaled its total of 35 seats in the April 2019 election.
Netanyahu’s victory was attributed to a number of factors. One is his undisputed political acumen and campaign savvy. Another was the virtual disappearance of the left in Israel as the entire population shifted to the right. Netanyahu also could tout a strong economy and a number of diplomatic successes in improving ties with Russia, the Gulf Arab states, and a number of African, Asian, and Latin American leaders.
His close relationship with President Trump, who is extremely popular in Israel, was also an asset. Trump also did his part to help the prime minister by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights shortly before the election. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also held a high-profile meeting with Netanyahu to reinforce the strong ties with the administration.
Security is always the paramount concern of Israeli voters, and although some of his opponents criticized Netanyahu for not taking tougher measures against Hamas, the public appreciated the fact that he had kept Israel out of any wars and still took strong action against threats from Hezbollah, Iran, and Hamas. The peace process was largely a non-issue because Gantz’s views were not that different from Netanyahu’s. Moreover, most Israelis do not see any urgency to reach an agreement, and they see no Palestinian negotiating partner. Netanyahu did make an obvious play for the far-right vote by pledging to annex settlements in the West Bank.
Since Netanyahu was viewed as having the best chance to form a coalition, President Reuven Rivlin chose him to try to put together the Knesset majority needed for a government. After seven weeks of negotiations, however, Israelis were subsequently stunned when Netanyahu failed to meet the May 29 deadline to form a new government.
Netanyahu successfully assembled a coalition of right-wing and religious parties that represented 60 seats in the Knesset, but that was one short of the majority needed to form a government. He needed the support of longtime rival Avigdor Lieberman whose Yisrael Beiteinu Party held five seats, but Lieberman wanted Netanyahu to agree to pass a bill that would require ultra-Orthodox Israelis to serve in the military, like most other Israelis. This, however, would have led the ultra-Orthodox parties to abandon the coalition. Since neither side was willing to compromise Netanyahu could not form a government.
Meanwhile, many Israelis were alarmed that one element of the coalition negotiations was a pledge by Netanyahu’s supporters to vote for a bill that said members of the Knesset cannot be charged with crimes allegedly committed during their tenures in the chamber or before they won their Knesset seats unless a house committee and the wider body both waive the members’ immunity. The legislation would also limit the power of the Supreme Court to overturn bills passed by the Knesset. The law was a transparent effort to allow Netanyahu, who would be immune as a member of the Knesset, to evade prosecution for a series of pending charges.
Following the expiration of the deadline for forming a government, Netanyahu orchestrated the dissolution of the Knesset to force new elections, which were scheduled for September 17, 2019. In the meantime, he remained prime minister and, on July 20, 2019, became Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing David Ben-Gurion’s 8,475 days in office.
In the September 2019 election, the Likud won only 31 seats and finished second to Kahol Lavan; nevertheless, Netanyahu was given the first crack at forming a government because he had a large block of votes from coalition partners than Kahol Lavan. He once again failed to win over enough partners to secure the 61 seats needed to form a government. Kahol’s Benny Gantz was subsequently given a chance to build a coalition. Though both Netanyahu and Gantz had explored the possibility of a unity government, they could not agree on a number of issues, including who would serve first as prime minister. Ultimately, Gantz also failed to form a government, and a third election was held on March 2, 2020.
The outcome of the election, as in the two previous ones, did not result in any party winning a majority of the votes or having an obvious coalition that would allow the formation of a government. Netanyahu and Gantz signed a deal on April 20, 2020, to form a “national emergency government” and avert the need for another election.
According to Israeli law, a new government has 100 days to pass a budget. In August 2020, a compromise law was passed that extended the deadline for another three months. That deadline expired, and the Knesset dissolved on December 22, 2020. A new election, the fourth in less than two years, was held on March 23, 2021.
While Netanyahu’s Likud Party won the most votes, his potential coalition partners did not do well enough to ensure he could form a government. Opponents of Netanyahu were united in a desire to avoid another election. Lapid reached a coalition agreement with Bennett and six other parties, including, for the first time, the Islamist Ra’am Party, thereby ending Netanyahu’s unprecedented 12-year hold on the premiership.
The government collapsed just over one year after forming, leading to the country’s fifth election in three years on November 1, 2022.
In August 2022, Netanyahu brokered a deal for Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party to run together with Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit to ensure they would win seats in the Knesset. Individually, they were less likely to succeed and would deprive Netanyahu of the votes he needed to be prime minister. Dan Meridor, a former Likud MK, among others, criticized the move.
We had a man who hung a picture of a Jewish terrorist in his home, and the then Prime Minister made a concerted effort to make him a legitimate participant in the political game in order to further his own purposes – to get 61 seats and keep him in power.
Netanyahu also put out a fire that might have led him to lose support. The leaders of United Torah Judaism were considering splitting into two rival factions, which could have left one or both below the electoral threshold. Netanyahu convinced the non-Hasidic “Lithuanian” faction of Degel Hatorah, headed by Moshe Gafni, and the Hasidic Agudat Israel, led by Yitzhak Goldenkopf, to remain united. In exchange, he agreed to increase their schools’ budgets and exempt them from teaching secular studies.
Polls prior to the election forecast a tight race with Netanyahu and the parties supporting him likely eking out a victory with perhaps 61 seats. Instead, they won 64, and Netanyahu was given the mandate to form a new government. The Religious Zionism Party surprisingly won 14 seats which gave it the power to dictate terms to Netanyahu, but rewarding the party’s far-right leaders with cabinet positions alarmed many inside and outside of Israel. Concessions he made to Shas and United Torah Judaism to win their support also concerned Jews worried about religious pluralism, equal representation in the military, and disproportionate spending on yeshivot.
Netanyahu has been married three times. Netanyahu’s first marriage was to Miriam Weizmann, whom he met in Israel. The couple had one daughter, Noa (born April 29, 1978). While Weizmann was pregnant, Netanyahu met a non-Jewish British student named Fleur Cates and began an affair. His marriage ended in divorce when his wife discovered the affair. In 1981, Netanyahu married Cates, who converted to Judaism. The couple divorced in 1984.
His third wife, Sara Ben-Artzi, was divorced and working as a flight attendant for El Al when they met. She was in the process of completing a master’s degree in psychology. The couple married in 1991 after she became pregnant and have two sons: Yair and Avner.
In 1993, Netanyahu confessed on live television to having had an affair with Ruth Bar, his married public relations adviser. He said that a political rival had planted a secret video camera that had recorded him in a sexually compromising position with Bar, and that he had been threatened with the release of the tape to the press unless he quit the Likud leadership race. Netanyahu and Sara repaired their marriage, and he was elected to the leadership of Likud.
Netanyahu has remained popular in Israel due in part to his tough stands against terrorism and Iran, a thriving economy, and a lack of serious opposition even as he and his wife Sara have come under investigation for a number of scandals.
A report into the spending of Netanyahu prepared by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira was released on February 17, 2015. Included in the report were records of extravagant spending by the prime minister and his wife at their official residence, such as $18,000 spent on takeout food in a single year, despite the fact that they were provided with a personal chef with a full staff at their residence. The Netanyahus reportedly also spent $2,120 per month cleaning their beach home, and the cleaning costs at their main residence in Jerusalem mysteriously doubled to more than $300,000 between 2009 and 2013. Included in the report as well are allegations that government employees were asked to pay out of pocket for many of the prime minister’s personal expenses, and were not reimbursed.
No charges were filed as a result of the 2015 report. On June 21, 2018, however, Sara was indicted on charges of fraud and breach of public trust after falsely misrepresenting the employment status of cooks at the prime minister’s official residence and fraudulently spending an estimated $100,000 on takeout food orders between 2010 and 2013.
The prime minister has also been associated with four scandals that have garnered widespread publicity in Israel:
After three years of investigation during which 140 witnesses gave evidence, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced on February 28, 2019, he was considering indicting Netanyahu in Case 4000 for bribery and breach of trust; in Case 1000, for fraud and breach of trust and, in Case 2000, for breach of trust and fraud. Mendelblit also said he would not pursue indictments against Netanyahu’s wife Sara, or his son Yair.
Netanyahu responded to the charges by insisting there was no connection between his actions regarding Bezeq and the coverage by Walla! He said that his decisions made as communications minister were reasonable and done with the support of the ministry’s staff. He also argued the evidence there had been no quid-pro-quo was the hostile coverage he continued to receive from the publication.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu said he was allowed to accept gifts from friends and had never solicited them. He maintained there was no quid-pro-quo with Milchan.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu said he was being treated unfairly because others who were friends of Milchan were not questioned. He also claimed that he and Arnon Mozes were not being serious during recordings of them exchanging commitments.
Some of Netanyahu’s rivals immediately called for him to resign, but he said he had no intention of doing so. Many supporters rallied to his side.
On November 21, 2019, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that Netanyahu would be charged with bribery in Case 4000. Conviction on the charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Netanyahu was also accused of breach of public trust in Case 1000 and Case 2000. Netanyahu defended himself against the charges during a four-day pre-indictment hearing in October.
On January 28, 2020, Netanyahu decided to withdraw his request that the Knesset grant him parliamentary immunity to avoid a criminal trial. He was subsequently indicted and charged with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000 and 2000, and bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000. This is the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister will face criminal charges.
His rivals have called for him to resign, but he is not required to by law. He would only be forced from his post if he was convicted of a crime.
Netanyahu’s trial was scheduled to begin on March 17, 2020, but was postponed for at least two months due to the state of emergency imposed over the coronavirus. The trial began on May 24, 2020. in 2022, negotiations for the signing of a plea deal between Mandelblit and Netanyahu collapsed, and the trial continued.
Netanyahu has written a number of books that appeared in Hebrew and English, with some also translated into Russian, French, Arabic, Japanese and other languages, among them Self Portrait of a Hero: From the Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu 1963-1976 (edited 1978), International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (edited 1979), Terrorism: How the West Can Win (edited 1987); A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations (1992); and Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism (1996).
Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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Photo: Matty STERN / U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.