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Bibi Netanyahu: Israel’s divisive saviour

Bibi Netanyahu: Israel’s divisive saviour

Israel’s ninth prime minister, first elected in 1996, has just won an unprecedented fourth term



What does Netanyahu stand for?

In a word, security. Throughout his long career, the first Israeli prime minister to be born after the founding of the state – Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was born in 1949 – has been synonymous with fighting terrorism and deep scepticism of a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians. “All you have on the other side is terror,” he said, during his recent successful election campaign. Even in a region of the world characterised by distrust, Netanyahu stands out for his prickly relationships with both the Palestinians, Israel’s great foe, and the US – its main ally. “Israeli prime ministers sleep with one eye open,” wrote Aaron David Miller in Foreign Policy in 2012. “Bibi sleeps with two open. He’s constantly on guard.”

Has he always been so hawkish?

Pretty much. The middle son of a prominent Zionist historian, Benzion Netanyahu – an expert on the Spanish Inquisition – Bibi grew up in the Katamon district of Jerusalem, and when his father moved to the US to teach, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Drafted into military service in 1967, Netanyahu joined the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s equivalent of the SAS (known simply as “The Unit”) and fought in Lebanon. For two years, all three Netanyahu brothers – Yoni, Bibi and Iddo – served in the Sayeret Matkal. “We were very, very close,” Bibi has said. “We were really a band of brothers.” Yoni became the commander of the Sayeret Matkal and was killed in July 1976 during the raid to free 100 Israeli hostages being held at Entebbe Airport, in Uganda. The death of his elder brother helped inspire Netanyahu’s political career.

In what way?

Netanyahu founded an anti-terrorism institute in his memory (Yoni is a national hero in Israel) and organised high-profile security conferences in the US. Hired by the Israeli ambassador to the US in 1982, he became Israel’s representative to the UN in 1984, and was elected to the Knesset in 1988. He was then made chairman of Likud, the main right-wing party, and campaigned aggressively for expanding Jewish settlements in such Palestinian areas as the West Bank and east Jerusalem. “Then it was: he wants to be our Messiah,” says Kobi Eliraz, mayor of Eli, a settlement in the heart of the West Bank. When Netanyahu became PM in 1996, he startled Israel’s allies with his audacity. “Who’s the f***ing superpower here?” Bill Clinton is said to have exclaimed, on meeting him.

Did Netanyahu deliver as PM?

All Israeli governments are coalitions (in last week’s victory, Likud won just 30 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats), so once in power, Netanyahu was forced to compromise and to take part in the relatively promising peace talks then occurring. In 1997, he became the first Likud leader to cede territory to the Palestinians, in a deal to hand back 80% of the city of Hebron. But a month later, he provoked international outcry by approving the construction of a controversial settlement, Har Homa, on Palestinian land outside Jerusalem. However, after losing power in 1999, Netanyahu found himself in the political wilderness for the best part of a decade, as various peace initiatives aiming towards a “two-state solution” spluttered and failed.

How did he make a comeback?

There were several reasons for his return to power in 2009. One was that the migration to Israel over the previous 20 years of more than a million citizens of the former Soviet Union changed the nature of Israeli politics, tilting it firmly to the Right (see box). Another was that as the situation in the Middle East deteriorated, Netanyahu’s pessimistic view of the world began to chime more and more with the voters. “Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s nuclear designs and Israel’s economic ills,” was Reuters’ explanation at the time.

Was he even at that time opposed to any peace deal?

No. In 2009 he outlined his vision of peace with a “demilitarised” Palestinian state, and said Israel had “no intention of building new settlements” on Palestinian land – an important stumbling block to any deal. But the impact of the Arab Spring (“the Arab Storm”, Netanyahu calls it) and the rise of radical Islam changed all that. In 2014 he ordered a ground war against Hamas in Gaza which left 2,100 Palestinians dead (67 Israelis lost their lives). Last year, his government approved 4,485 settler units for construction in the West Bank. And in his recent campaign, he ruled out any two-state solution. “Any territory handed over would be taken over by radical Islamists,” he insisted. He may, of course, have been posturing in order to shore up the right-wing vote, and now the election is over, may return to the talks. “I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” he said the day after his victory. “But for that, circumstances have to change.”

Does the White House think that Netanyahu means that?

Probably not. Last year, US Secretary of State John Kerry blamed him for wrecking months of US-brokered talks with the Palestinians, by approving 700 new apartments in the settlement of Gilo on a critical day. “Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said. Since then, US/Israeli relations have reached a new low. Earlier this month, Netanyahu criticised Obama’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear plans, while members of Obama’s election team travelled to Israel to campaign for his opponents. Netanyahu retaliated by running what was dubbed a gevalt campaign – a Yiddish term for alarm, accusing the White House of interfering in the election (phone calls to Likud supporters spoke of “Hussein Obama”), and warning of high turn-out among Israel’s Arab population. “Right-wing rule is in danger,” he warned. “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.” This gave him a late surge in support, and another term as PM.

A greater Israel or a global Israel?

According to Israeli academic Bernard Avishai, Israel’s voters can be split into five, roughly equal groups, each forming between 15% and 20% of the population: “pioneering Zionists from Europe; Arabs who became Israeli citizens; Jewish refugees from Muslim nations; national-Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox theocrats; and immigrants from the former Soviet Union”. Of the five, the last three tend to vote for right-wing parties like Likud, winner of eight out of the last 12 elections.

This election saw Israel’s Left-leaning centre, and its Arab parties, regaining some ground. But with rapid population growth among the more Orthodox communities, and among politically assertive immigrants from the former USSR (Avigdor Lieberman, the hawkish foreign minister, was born in Moldova), a nationalist, uncompromising future for Israeli politics seems likely. (In 2010, former US president Bill Clinton caused a storm by saying Russian-speaking Israelis were “an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians”.) Netanyahu has tracked this shift to the Right. Late last year, he proposed a new “Jewish nationhood bill” to make Israel an explicitly Jewish state, despite 20% of its population being Arabs – a move that split the government and helped trigger this election.

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