Israel’s ‘King Bibi’ stays on top, but storm clouds ahead

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long reign atop Israeli politics has seen him outlast opponents with deft manoeuvring and right-wing leadership, but his latest gamble has many wondering whether it will be among his last.

Israel is headed for snap elections on April 9, and while polls show Netanyahu is likely to again prevail, a series of corruption investigations have led to speculation over whether he will later be forced to step down.

He will not be legally required to resign if indicted, but political pressure will surely be intense and any future coalition partners will have to decide whether to stick with him.

The attorney general’s decision on indictments is expected in the coming months.

A range of analysts believe he pushed for elections seven months early at least partly to combat potential charges with a fresh mandate from voters.

It would not be wise to bet on his downfall yet.

Should he win in April, he will be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion’s record of more than 13 years in office, and Netanyahu is no doubt aware of that weighty milestone.

“He has no plan in resigning and no plan in stepping down, and he believes he can beat the charges against him,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist at Israeli newspaper Haaretz and author of a recently-published Netanyahu biography.

 ‘No exaggeration here’ 

The burly 69-year-old with his familiar grey comb-over has entrenched himself at the top so firmly he has been labelled “King Bibi”, his nickname dating to childhood.

Few doubt his political effectiveness, and supporters say the proof is seen in his opponents struggling to mount a major challenge to his leadership.

Much of his popularity has to do with another nickname — “Mr. Security” — in a country where such issues are always on voters’ minds.

He has often sought to avoid talking about the Palestinians apart from security operations, with Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank.

There were no surprises in how Netanyahu began his election campaign, mentioning Israeli strikes in Syria against what it says are Iranian military targets and an operation to destroy Hezbollah tunnels.

He also touched on another frequent talking point, highlighting economic growth despite a high cost of living that remains a concern.

“We have turned Israel into a rising world power. There is no exaggeration here,” Netanyahu said with familiar bombast.

Netanyahu was born in 1949 in the then-nascent state of Israel around a year and a half after it was created.

He and his wife Sara have two sons, and he has a daughter from a previous marriage.

The son of a history professor active in Israeli right-wing politics, Netanyahu grew up partly in the United States.

He attended the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and with his fluent, American-accented English would appear on television speaking forcefully in defence of Israel.

While in the United States, he changed his last name to Nitay — not to reject his roots but because Americans had difficulty pronouncing Netanyahu, Pfeffer writes.

He performed his Israeli military service with an elite unit and was wounded in combat, but another family member’s service may have affected him more deeply.

In 1976, his brother Yonatan died in an Israeli commando raid to rescue hostages in Uganda.

Netanyahu has called the operation “a very dramatic national experience” and “one of great personal consequence.”

‘Master of politics’ 

Israeli politics in its early years was dominated by the Labour party, but the first victory by Likud, then led by Menachem Begin, in 1977 helped lay groundwork for Netanyahu’s political future.

His career took off when he was posted to Israel’s Washington embassy and was later ambassador to the United Nations.

He became Israel’s youngest prime minister in 1996, at 46, but was defeated three years later.

Netanyahu would return to office in 2009 and has remained ever since.

“It’s an interesting personality,” said Shmuel Sandler, a professor at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

“He’s now considered a master of politics, and when he started he was young. He didn’t know how to handle it,” he said, describing Netanyahu’s early approach as too American.

But for many, his politics have been too divisive, accusing him of scare tactics and pitting Israelis against themselves by castigating those who disagree.

Asked about Netanyahu’s legacy, Pfeffer pointed to a passage in his book.

“His ultimate legacy will not be a more secure nation, but a deeply fractured Israeli society, living behind walls,” he wrote.


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