Supporters call him ‘King Bibi of Israel’. Detractors deride his right-wing politics, polarising leadership and bellicose foreign policy. But Benjamin Netanyahu has been a domineering presence in Israel’s politics for more than three decades. On Sunday, his illustrious political career suffered a major setback when a coalition formed by his former allies and partners proved majority in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, bringing an end to Mr. Netanyahu’s 12 years of consecutive rule.
Arguably, no politician has managed to influence Israel’s domestic and foreign policies as much as Mr. Netanyahu has done in the new century. He ruled from the right, made alliances with a host of Jewish orthodox parties, took a harder line towards the Palestinians, expanded the Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, repeatedly bombed Gaza, clashed with the Obama administration over the Iran deal, took Israel’s covert and overt operations to Iran and Syria, made peace with four Arab countries and refused to leave power despite repeated failures to form a stable government since 2019.
Even after the ‘change’ coalition was formed under the leadership of centrist politician Yair Lapid and right-wing leader Naftali Bennett, Mr. Netanyahu tried till the last moment to subvert government formation. And after it became certain that Mr. Bennett would be elected Prime Minister on Sunday, in the Knesset, he threatened to “topple the dangerous left-wing government”. The message is clear — Mr. Netanyahu is already plotting a comeback.
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Opposition to Oslo process
Born in Israel and brought up partly in the U.S., Mr. Netanyahu, like most Israelis, served in the military in the 1970s, along with his brother Yonatan Netanyahu. Yonathan was killed in 1976, at age 30, during an operation to rescue hostages held at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. Mr. Netanyahu rose to fame in the 1980s when he was posted as Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations. A fluent speaker in English with an East Coast accent, he was a regular presence in American TV shows during that time. After returning to Israel, he plunged into politics, in 1988, in the midst of the First Intifada by the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu built a political career by opposing the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s.
In 1993, when he was 43, Mr. Netanyahu became the leader of Likud. He lambasted the Oslo Accords, attended right-wing rallies held to oppose the peace policies of Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and continued to call Yasser Arafat a terrorist. When Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist, many critics said Mr. Netanyahu’s hyperbole speeches at rallies where crowds chanted “death to Rabin” fuelled extremism and incitement.
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Rise to power
But it did not deter Mr. Netanyahu. In 1996, he became Israel’s youngest Prime Minister by defeating Shimon Peres. Under his watch, the Oslo process slowed down. After losing power in 1999, he was in the wilderness briefly when Labour leader Ehud Barak revived the peace process under pressure from Bill Clinton. But the 2000 Camp David summit failed. Palestinian territories erupted into the Second Intifada. Likud was back in power. Mr. Netanyahu played second fiddle to Ariel Sharon. When Sharon left Likud in 2005 to form Kadima, the party came to the hands of Mr. Netanyahu. He was initially in the Opposition. It was during this period that Mr. Bennett joined the Netanyahu team. A U.S.-based entrepreneur, Mr. Bennett became Mr. Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff. Mr. Netanyahu came to power again in 2009. Twelve years later, the same Bennett would dislodge his former boss from power and take his job.
In the past, Mr. Netanyahu had mastered the art of survival. He had seen allies coming and going, but he had always retained power. But his repeated failure to form a stable government after four elections since 2019 appeared to have weakened the brand of Netanyahu. He is also facing corruption charges and, if convinced, could be jailed for years. Even the Gaza bombing, which many predicted would help him politically, appears to have backfired as his right-wing allies criticised the ceasefire with Hamas, calling it “a surrender”. When his grip on Israeli politics finally started loosening up, his political rivals found an opportunity. Mr. Lapid, a former Minister in the Netanyahu government, stitched together a coalition of eight parties, from the right-wing Yamina of Mr. Bennett to the Arab Ra’am, which managed to form the government. This is the first time an Arab party is joining a ruling coalition in the history of Israel.
In the Knesset, Mr. Netanyahu has made it clear that he will not give up. He has called the coming together of the right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties an “election fraud”. On the other side, the Lapid-Bennett coalition is visibly weak. When Mr. Lapid met the President earlier this month to apprise him of the coalition, he had the support of 61 members in the 120-member Knesset. During the vote on June 13, the government got the backing of 60 members of the Knesset (MKs) as against the Opposition’s 59 — one MK from the Arab party Ra’am abstained. It would be an uphill task for Mr. Bennett to keep his bloc together, especially when sensitive issues such as Jerusalem or Jewish settlements come up. But to begin with, they did what seemed impossible till a few months ago — ousting Mr. Netanyahu from power. For Messrs. Lapid and Bennett, that itself is an achievement.