Benjamin Netanyahu is the current Prime Minister of Israel in its 37th government. He is also the chairman of the right-wing Likud party.
He has served in office twice, from 1996 to 1999, from 2009 to 2021, and present since December 2022, making him the longest-serving Prime Minister of Israel. He is also the first Israeli Prime Minister to be born in Israel since its establishment as an independent state in 1948.
Early life and education
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was born on October 21, 1949, in Tel Aviv (now Tel Aviv-Yafo), the second of three sons of renowned historian Benzion Netanyahu and his wife Tzila Segal. Benzion Netanyahu (formerly Mileikowsky) was born in Warsaw, Poland (then Congress Poland, Russian Empire). Benjamin’s grandfather was the noted Zionist rabbi and educator Nathan Mileikowsky. He has two brothers, Yonatan (“Yoni”) and Iddo.
Netanyahu received his early education in Jerusalem. When his family relocated to the United States, they settled in a suburb in Philadelphia, where he studied at a local high school while his father took a teaching post at Dropsie College. Aside from his native Hebrew, Netanyahu speaks fluent English with a noticeable Philadelphian accent.
Military career and continued education
Soon after graduating from high school, Netanyahu returned to Israel to fulfill his military obligations, joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1967. In his five years in the military, he trained as a combat soldier and served in the IDF’s special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal (which is equivalent to the U.S. Delta Force). His brothers also served in this elite unit.
During his service, Netanyahu fought at the front lines during the War of Attrition (1967 – 1970), rising to become a team leader in the unit. He also took part in a number of daring operations, including the 1968 raid on Lebanon and the counter-terrorist hostage rescue mission in the hijacked Sabena 571 airline jet in 1972, where 98 people (including two of the four hijackers) were saved. During this particular hostage rescue operation, Netanyahu was accidentally shot in the shoulder by another commando.
He returned to the U.S. in 1972 to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). He took time out by returning to Israel shortly to fight in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Afterwards, he returned to the States to continue his studies at the M.I.T. He earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1975 and his master’s degree from the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management in 1976. He subsequently worked at the Boston Consulting Group, where he met and befriended future senator and governor Mitt Romney.
Anti-terrorism efforts and diplomatic career
Also in 1976, Netanyahu was working for a doctorate in political science at Harvard University when it was halted by the death of his older brother Yoni.
Yoni, who served in the IDF like his younger brother Bibi, was the unit commander of Sayeret Matkal during the counter-terrorist rescue hostage mission Operation Entebbe at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, in 1976. While the IDF was successful in saving 102 of the 106 Israeli airline passengers from the Palestinian and German hijackers, Yoni was killed in action, making him the only casualty on the IDF side.
Yoni’s death drove Netanyahu to become highly involved in international anti-terrorism campaigns. He founded the Jonathan Institute, which sponsored international conferences on terrorism. He also held several conferences focused on discussions on international terrorism.
His active efforts would pave the way for his diplomatic career and future political career. In 1982, he was appointed Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., a position he held for two years. He was also a member of the delegation to the discussions on strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Israel. In 1984, Netanyahu was appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, a position he held for four years.
Around this time, he would appear frequently on American television, presenting and arguing Israel’s case as a diplomat. With his intelligence, natural gift for speaking and debating, perfect American-accented English, booming baritone voice, media-ready appearance and charisma, Netanyahu became renowned for enhancing Israel’s image in the international arena. As a result, he emerged as a rising star in world politics. Seeing the young Netanyahu’s popularity, many political pundits would not find it surprising that he could be the next Prime Minister of Israel.
First term as Prime Minister (1996 – 1999)
After his U.N. ambassador stint, Netanyahu entered Israeli politics in 1988. He was elected to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as a member of the Likud party. He also served as deputy minister for foreign affairs from 1988 to 1991.
In 1993 he was elected chairman of the Likud party and named as prime minister candidate. In Israel’s first-ever direct elections for Prime Minister in May 1996, Netanyahu was elected to the office, defeating incumbent Labor candidate Shimon Peres who was seeking a re-election bid. At 46 years old, Netanyahu was the youngest Prime Minister ever elected.
During his first term as prime minister, he signed the Hebron Protocol and the Wye River Memorandum, advancing the peace process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu also expanded government privatization, relaxed currency regulations and cut down deficits.
Following his defeat in the 1999 elections, Netanyahu returned to work in the private sector. In 2002, he returned to being a public servant, serving as foreign affairs minister and then minister of finance.
Second term as Prime Minister (2009 – 2021)
In March 2009, Netanyahu was elected as prime minister for the second time, emphasizing his victory by establishing a national unity government. In his speech at Bar-Ilan University, he called for a “Demilitarized Palestinian State,” although he also said that Jerusalem must remain as Israel’s capital.
He found himself at odds with the U.S. in November 2013 when he objected to the deal reached between the U.S. and Iran over the latter’s nuclear weapons program. It included terms that consisted of reducing suspension of efforts to enrich uranium in exchange for a relaxing of existing sanctions. Netanyahu described the deal as the greatest threat to Israel’s security and world peace.
He also held negative views towards a series of uprisings in the Arab world, collectively known as “Arab Spring,” predicting that the new Arab leaders would be more hostile to Israel than their predecessors.
In March 2015, Netanyahu won in mid-March elections, amid controversy which arose among analysts critiquing his use of anti-Arab rhetoric as voters went to the polls, something for which he later apologized.
Since December 2016, Netanyahu has been under investigation by police and prosecutors for corruption. On November 21, 2019, he was formally indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, becoming the first Israeli Prime Minister to be accused and indicted of such serious offenses while in office. He was also legally required to relinquish all of his other ministry posts than his position of prime minister.
Israel’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic
Netanyahu’s trial was expected to start in the first half of 2020, but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Amidst these mounting challenges, he and his government also came under sharp criticism regarding their response to the pandemic.
Hundreds of anti-Netanyahu protesters staged demonstrations in front of his residence. Following this, Netanyahu ordered a “socially distanced” demonstration that included following health protocols: a limit of up to 20 people and at a distance of 1,000 meters from their homes. But the turnout became the exact opposite, as the demonstrations grew in numbers and dispersed to more than 1,000 centers.
Israel began its Covid-19 vaccination campaign in December 2020, with Netanyahu himself becoming the first Israeli citizen to receive vaccine shots. He did so on live television to encourage other Israelis to get vaccinated as well. Immunized citizens got the “green pass,” introduced by the Israeli health ministry, which would allow them to have access to certain venues such as cinema theaters, hotels, and gyms. However, many Israelis strongly opposed this move.
The country’s rigorous Covid-19 vaccine efforts paid off: by March 2021, Israel became the country with the highest vaccinated population per capita against Covid-19. The following April, Israel reported no new daily Covid-related deaths for the first time in ten months, inching closer to succeed on its bid as the first country to come out of Covid-19. By June, people are no longer required to wear face masks indoors and in enclosed spaces.
Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Netanyahu’s exit, and his stint as Leader of the Opposition
In May 2021, tensions sparked in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where the Israeli supreme court had ordered four Palestinian families to evict. The Palestinians in East Jerusalem started a wave of protests against the court decision. Then, they threw stones at the Israeli police forces, prompting the latter to storm the Al-Aqsa mosque compound using tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. Following these on-ground riots, the terrorist group Hamas started to fire rockets on Israel from the Gaza Strip.
The escalating tensions prompted Netanyahu to initiate Operation Guardian of the Walls on May 6. After days of exchanging bombs and airstrikes, Egypt, Qatar, and the U.N. brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The ceasefire came into effect on May 21, ending the 11-day conflict. Both sides claimed victory.
Following the conflicts, businessman and politician Naftali Bennett formally announced that he had agreed to form a coalition rotation government with Yair Lapid to oust Netanyahu. On June 2, 2021, Bennett and Lapid signed the coalition agreement.
Bennett, a former Defense Minister and an ex-aide to Netanyahu, is the leader of the far-right Yamina party, which has only six seats in the 120-member Knesset. Lapid, on the other hand, is the leader of the center-left Blue and Yesh Atid party that has eight seats.
Should Netanyahu be ousted and this rotation arrangement push through, Bennett would be Prime Minister for two years and Lapid would succeed him and assume the leadership for another two years. That is, if the new government would prove good enough to hold on. Given Bennett’s and Lapid’s extremely contradictory political ideologies, this coalition government would be best described as fundamentally weak and was expected not to last for long.
On June 13, 2021, the Knesset approved the new coalition government — and accepted a new Prime Minister — in a razor-thin 60-59 vote. Bennett was sworn in as the new Prime Minister, ending Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. In his final speech as Prime Minister, Netanyahu blasted at the new Bennett administration as “bad, dangerous, left-wing government” and pledged to topple it “much sooner than you think.”
As an ex-Prime Minister, Netanyahu formally began his third term as the Leader of the Opposition. He is still chairman of Likud, which remains the largest party in the Knesset with 29 seats.
Dissolution of the 24th Knesset, the Israeli legislative elections, and Netanyahu as Prime Minister again
True enough, the coalition government was soon sent crumbling with several legislative losses in the Knesset. Prime Minister Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Lapid introduced a bill to dissolve the 24th Knesset, which was approved on June 30, 2022. Simultaneously, following the rotation government arrangement that was part of the 2021 coalition deal, Lapid became Prime Minister and led what is called a “caretaker government” until the following November elections would take place.
On November 1, 2022, Israel held another legislative election — its fifth election in less than four years due to the ongoing political crisis at the time. Since 2019, no party had been able to form a stable coalition government, leading to election after election.
In an legislative election in Israel, a party needs at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to form a majority. Exit polls showed that Netanyahu’s Likud bloc secured 64 seats, followed by 51 seats from the opposition bloc led by outgoing Prime Minister Lapid.
The numbers were clear: Netanyahu was poised to for a comeback. President Isaac Herzog gave Netanyahu a mandate to form a government. On December 21, Netanyahu announced he successfully formed what could be the most extreme right-wing government ever yet in Israel. His far-right bloc consists of ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties, including the Religious Zionist Party, United Torah Judaism, and Otzmah Yehudit (“Jewish Strength”). One of the politicians expected to take ministerial roles was Itamar Ben-Gvir, a controversial politician from Otzmah Yehudit known for inciting anti-Arab racism. He was previously convicted of supporting an extremist Jewish terrorist group. Not surprisingly, this new far-right government drew concerns and criticisms, including those from the US White House.
Netanyahu, in his sixth term as Prime Minister, and his new government were sworn in on December 29, 2022.