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Netanyahu: Israel’s longest-serving premier whose magic ran out

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses lawmakers during a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced the likely end of his 12-year rule as a fragile alliance of his political enemies hoped to oust him in a parliament vote and form a new government. (Photo by AFP)


Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has always managed to snuff out threats to his power — until an unlikely alliance of rivals ganged up and ended his reign on Sunday.

The wily 71-year-old, widely known as Bibi, clung to power for a record 12 straight years through several conflicts and a long period of political turmoil despite also being on trial for alleged fraud, bribery and breach of trust, charges he denies.

A hawkish heavyweight, he repeatedly convinced voters only he could keep Israel safe from threats, including Palestinian militants and Iran.

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In his last year in office, Netanyahu clinched historic normalisation agreements with four Arab states and unrolled a world-beating Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

But his troubles mounted in March, when he failed again to achieve a conclusive result in Israel’s fourth election in less than two years.

On Sunday, his fall was made official when a coalition crafted by centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid and joined by right-wing religious nationalist and former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett narrowly won a vote of confidence in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

The coalition, cobbled together from parties ranging from pro-settlement hardliners to conservative Islamists and secular Jewish liberals, was united by its disdain for Netanyahu.

The veteran incumbent fought to the bitter end, urging his supporters to heap pressure on right-wing defectors, in the hope of luring them back to his camp.

Indicted 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.

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Netanyahu was marked deeply by the operation which he called “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.

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 to be 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, rather overseeing a boom in expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements, considered illegal under international law.

Last month, weeks of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians set off an 11-day exchange of rocket fire from Gaza and devastating Israeli air strikes, which ended with 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.

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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”, had frequently warned of the threat posed by Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah.

But the centrepiece of his foreign policy was thwarting the alleged nuclear weapons programme of Hezbollah backer Iran — a regime he calls the greatest threat to the Jewish people since Nazi Germany.

On occasion, he also angered Israel’s allies.

In one controversial episode, he addressed a joint session of the US Congress in 2015 without an invitation from then-president Barack Obama, using the platform to condemn Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.

In his presidential memoir, “A Promised Land”, Obama wrote 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”.

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