Benjamin Netanyahu | The comeback ‘king’ 

With solid support from Israel’s right-wing and orthodox sections and little regard for the critics of their policies, the Likud leader, whose coalition has won a majority in the legislative elections, is to continue to dominate the country’s politics and external policy

November 06, 2022 02:17 am | Updated November 09, 2022 12:32 pm IST

Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Benjamin Netanyahu.  | Photo Credit: R. Rajesh

In his long political career that started in the early 1990s, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu was written off several times. And every time, he made a stronger comeback. In 1996, he became Israel’s youngest Prime Minister, and the first to be born in the state of Israel. After losing the 1999 election heavily to Labour’s Ehud Barak, Mr. Netanyahu would go for a brief retirement, but would return to power in 2009. His hold over Israeli politics would be challenged again in 2019 after the fall of his government. In back-to-back elections, Mr. Netanyahu failed to form a stable coalition and three corruption cases cast shadows over his career. In 2021, his rivals from across Israel’s political spectrum joined hands to form a coalition with the main goal of keeping Bibi out of power.

But after 17 months in opposition, Mr. Netanyahu made another stunning comeback this week, with his right-religious coalition securing a comfortable majority in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. The era of Mr. Netanyahu, ‘King Bibi’ for his loyal supporters, is a present continuous one.

Born in 1949 in Tel Aviv, a year after the state of Israel was formed, he grew up in Israel and the U.S. He enlisted in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in 1967, the year of the June War in which Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt and Golan Heights from Syria — all in six days. Mr. Netanyahu would become a combat soldier and a team leader at an elite special forces unit of the IDF, Sayeret Matkal, “a unit that changed the reality of our lives,” as he later recalled. When Sayeret Matkal was deployed in 1976 to Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue hostages held at the city’s Airport, Mr. Netanyahu’s older brother Yonatan was the commander of the unit. Militants of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations had hijacked an Air France plane with 248 passengers and made it land in Uganda, which was then ruled by the dictator Idi Amin. The Sayeret Matkal’s mission was successful as most of the hostages were rescued, but Yonatan was killed in action — the IDF’s only fatality. The loss of his brother, according to Mr. Netanyahu, has shaped his views on “terrorism”, which he called a form of totalitarianism.

Arguably the most influential politician in Israel today, Mr. Netanyahu rose to power in 1996 when Israel was undergoing major changes. Three years earlier, Israel, led by Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) had signed the Oslo Accord. The PLO recognised the state of Israel and the latter agreed to the formation of a provisional government (Palestinian Authority or PA) in the occupied territories. After the tumultuous period of the first Intifada (the Palestinian uprising) that began in 1987, there was a strong constituency in Israel for peace. But this period also saw the growing strength of the political Right and the threat of Jewish extremism. On November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Rabin the main architect of the Oslo Accords, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist. Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres called for early elections, which he thought would strengthen his hands to go ahead with the peace plan. But in the election, the first direct election to choose the Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, a hardline critic of the Oslo process, emerged victorious.

In power, Mr. Netanyahu made some minor concessions, but walked back on several promises his immediate predecessors had made. When the Palestinian Authority was formed, both sides agreed that it would be the first step of an ambitious peace plan. The real goal was to find a permanent solution to the Palestine question through the two-state proposal. But the PA, with limited powers in parts of the occupied lands, became a permanent mechanism as the Oslo process unravelled under Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership. His version was that the peace process made Palestinian militancy stronger. Hamas, the Islamist movement that had also opposed the Oslo Accords, had carried out several suicide attacks during this period. Mr. Netanyahu held the PA, then led by Yasser Arafat, responsible for increased violence. Dennis Ross, U.S. President Bill Clinton’s peace envoy, then said “neither President Clinton nor Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright believed that Bibi had any real interest in pursuing peace.”

The Three Nos

Mr. Netanyahu has been consistently opposed to making any major concessions to the Palestinians. For him, “undivided Jerusalem” is Israel’s “eternal capital”. He is staunchly against the return of the Palestinian refugees (who were forced to flee their homes in 1948 when the state of Israel was formed) as part of any settlement. “Any demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel undermines Israel’s continued existence as the state of the Jewish people,” he once said. He resolutely opposed Ariel Sharon’s decision to unilaterally pull back Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. “The unilateral evacuation brought neither peace nor security,” said Mr. Netanyahu. He has also consistently supported Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories, which for him is the “natural growth” of the population.

In September 1967, a few months after the June war, Arab countries passed the ‘Three Nos’ resolution in the Khartoum summit — “No peace with Israel, No negotiations with Israel and No recognition of Israel”. In an indirect reference to the Khartoum resolution, Mr. Netanyahu, as Prime Minister, emphasised a policy of “Three Nos — “No withdrawal from the Golan Heights, No discussion of the status of Jerusalem and No negotiations under any preconditions.”

Arab countries have gone back on the Khartoum Nos. In 1994, a year after the first Oslo Accord was signed, Jordan reached a peace treaty with Israel. In 2020, four more Arab countries — the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan (where the Khartoum summit took place) and Morocco — normalised ties with Israel. But Mr. Netanyahu has not compromised on any of his Nos. On the other side, he tightened Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and enforced a crippling blockade on the Gaza Strip, which saw repeated, disproportionate Israeli bombardments in retaliation for rocket attacks by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

When Israel’s polity has clearly shifted rightwards, Mr. Netanyahu, by stitching together alliances with Jewish Orthodox and ultranationalist parties, has reaped political dividends. Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister is set to begin yet another term. This time, his key ally is Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of Religious Zionism, who wants to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and “deport” “disloyal” Arab citizens.

Foreign policy

Mr. Netanyahu is also known for his hawkish position towards Iran, Israel’s main rival in West Asia. He risked a complete breakdown in ties with the White House when he took his opposition to the Barack Obama-supported Iran nuclear deal to the U.S. Congress in 2015. Under his leadership, Israel also emerged as the key security player in West Asia, targeting Iran and in partnership with Arab countries, a relationship which is likely to thrive in a fast-changing region. He also chose to strengthen Israel’s ties with other major powers, including Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Narendra Modi’s India. As Prime Minister, he visited India twice, and hosted Mr. Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel.

But after spending 15 years in power and playing a critical role in shaping Israel’s domestic politics and foreign policy, Mr. Netanyahu hasn’t resolved any of his country’s security problems. Whatever he inherited — whether it’s Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran — are still plaguing the Jewish state. Israel continues to live in a volatile regional security environment. Domestically, the rise of the far-right, most of them Netanyahu allies, has challenged the social stability of the country, where Arab citizens make up some 20% of the population. But Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t seem to be perturbed. He thrives in crisis. His response to security challenges is to double down the military option and his response to the surge of the far-right is to embrace them — crisis at home, crisis abroad, Bibi remains the king. His legacy is perhaps defined by this permanence of crisis, unless he seeks to break the pattern in his new term.

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