A photographic journey shows how ‘Bibi’ put his stamp on Israel — through his toughness and the search for security in an unstable region.
Published: 2021-06-13 03:50 pm
Netanyahu’s Road Through Israel’s History, in Pictures
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C.Credit...Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A photographic journey shows how ‘Bibi’ put his stamp on Israel — through his toughness and the search for security in an unstable region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C.Credit...Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Bibi, King of Israel!”

That is a shout from his fervent supporters that might have given pause to King David, let alone King Solomon. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has finally lost his job, unable to cobble together a final majority in the Knesset after four elections in the last two years.

The government that has now replaced him is fragile, however. Little holds it together except a desire to get Mr. Netanyahu out of office, where he will no longer be immune from punishment, if convicted, over charges of corruption.

But Mr. Netanyahu still appears to rule Israel’s largest party, Likud, and given Israel’s riven politics, his fall may only be a sort of sabbatical.

Whatever the criticism of his actions and political cynicism, Mr. Netanyahu’s career represents an extraordinary accomplishment for a man who grew up in the shadow of a difficult and demanding father and a hero brother, killed at the age of 30 in command of one of Israel’s most storied military ventures, Operation Entebbe. The 1976 operation rescued hostages held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

Both brothers served in the military’s elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal. But Bibi survived to put a more lasting stamp on the young state through his political and economic policies, his toughness toward rivals. He has an instinctive sense of what drives Israelis — the search for security in one of the most unstable regions of the world, a Jewish state built on the remnants the Nazis left behind, in the midst of an Arab and Iranian sea.

Mr. Netanyahu, right, during a training exercise as a member of the Israeli Army’s Sayeret Matkal commando unit.Credit...Israeli Government Press Office
Israeli troops patrol fields around a hijacked Sabena aircraft in Tel Aviv in 1972. Mr. Netanyahu’s commando unit, led by Ehud Barak, another future prime minister, rescued the passengers from hijackers.Credit...Associated Press
Mr. Netanyahu with his daughter Noa in 1980.Credit...Israeli Government Press Office

Mr. Netanyahu’s path to leadership was not an obvious one. Born in Israel, he grew up partly in the United States, where his father, a deeply conservative scholar of Judaic history, was teaching.

He returned to Israel after high school, fluent in English, to make a distinguished career as a commando in Sayaret Matkal, where he rose to captain and was wounded several times.

He then returned to the United States, using the more Anglicized name Ben Nitay (later changed to Benjamin Ben Nitai) to get degrees in architecture and business management. By 1978, he was already appearing on American television, where his English made him an ideal guest to discuss Israel.

He found his way into diplomacy and politics in the early 1980s, when he was appointed deputy chief of mission to the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He then served as ambassador to the United Nations before returning to Israel to enter politics in earnest.

He joined the Likud in 1988 and was elected to Parliament.

Mr. Netanyahu, accompanied by Government Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, on a flight from New York to Washington in 1989, when Mr. Netanyahu served as deputy foreign minister.Credit...Israeli Government Press Office
Right-wing activists pasting campaign posters for Mr. Netanyahu over campaign posters for Prime Minister Shimon Peres in May 1996, before the election that would bring Mr. Netanyahu to power.Credit...David Silverman/Reuters
Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu in Jerusalem on election day in 1996.Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By 1993, he was the leader of Likud and was a strong critic of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor party and his willingness to give up territory to reach peace with the Palestinians in the Oslo accords. After Mr. Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Mr. Netanyahu was criticized for language approaching incitement, a charge he said he found deeply wounding.

But he defeated Washington’s favorite candidate, Shimon Peres, in the 1996 elections by pushing the theme of security in the midst of a badly managed conflict with Lebanon and a series of terrorist bombings by Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He became the youngest prime minister in Israeli history and the first to be born in the independent state.

That same year, 1996, Mr. Netanyahu represented Israel for the first time in summit meetings organized by President Clinton, who was eager to build on Oslo to create a more lasting peace.

Then and later, in the 1998 Wye River summit, Mr. Netanyahu proved a difficult partner. He was willing to appeal to American Jews and Israel supporters in Congress to heighten political pressure on Mr. Clinton not to press Israel to go farther than he judged wise.

His relations with the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, were always tense, and the two never came to trust one another enough to reach the peace that Mr. Clinton thought was within grasp.

Vice President Al Gore watching as Yasir Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan, President Clinton and Mr. Netanyahu leave the Oval Office after a Middle East summit meeting in 1996.Credit...Paul Hosefros/The New York Times
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders failed to resolve any of their differences during the two-day summit.Credit...Doug Mills/Associated Press
Surrounded by security personnel, Mr. Netanyahu, with his wife Sara and son Avner, spent a holiday at the beach in Caesarea in August 1997.Credit...Shaul Golan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

While Mr. Netanyahu did much to reform Israel’s economy, charges of corruption, both large and petty, surrounded him and hurt his popularity.

After the failure of his Labor Party successor, Ehud Barak, to reach peace with the Palestinians at long meetings at Camp David and again, just before Mr. Clinton left office, Mr. Netanyahu returned to politics. But he lost out to Ariel Sharon, then went on to serve in his cabinet. After a period in opposition, Mr. Netanyahu became prime minister again in 2009 and has remained in office since.

But his relations with American presidents continued to be fraught, and he and President Obama developed a deep mutual disdain.

Mr. Obama pushed too hard too early to try to get Israel to stop settlement building in the occupied West Bank, while Mr. Netanyahu believed that Mr. Obama was putting Israel at an existential risk by trying to do a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program.

While Iran denied it was aiming to develop nuclear weapons, Mr. Netanyahu compared the threat of Iran to Israel and the Jews to the late 1930s in Europe, when Hitler took power.

He tried to defeat the deal in every setting, from the United Nations, where he famously held up a cartoon bomb with a thick red line representing Iranian uranium enrichment, to the U.S. Congress itself, where he remained very popular, especially among Republicans.

During his second tenure as prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu had an icy relationship with President Obama.Credit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
The Iron Dome defense system being used to intercept incoming missiles fired from Gaza by Hamas militants in 2012.Credit...Tsafrir Abayov/Associated Press
Mr. Netanyahu, famous for his use of visual aids, displaying his red line for Iran’s nuclear program at the United Nations in 2012.Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Mr. Netanyahu also dealt with the aftermath of Mr. Sharon’s decision to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip, a step he opposed. Mr. Sharon dumped the keys to Gaza in the street, but they were picked up by the more radical Hamas, which seized control of the Palestinian territory from the more moderate Fatah faction led by Mr. Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

Under Mr. Netanyahu, Israel made regular raids and airstrikes to try to stop rockets from Gaza hitting southern Israel, prompting criticism about the deaths of Palestinian civilians in a place many compared to an open-air prison, largely sealed off from the world by Israel and Egypt.

But Mr. Netanyahu has refrained from any comprehensive re-invasion of Gaza and has had quiet talks through Egyptian mediators with Hamas to try to keep Gaza from imploding and dragging Israel into a larger war, especially another one with the Iranian-armed Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon.

In the occupied West Bank, however, Israel continued to build a separation barrier between the Palestinians and ever-expanding settlements beyond the so-called Green Line, which delineated Israel’s boundaries under the 1949 armistice until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Mr. Netanyahu increasingly depended on political support from Israelis who supported the settlement expansion and their eventual annexation, which he threatened but never carried out.

At the same time, he has been making inroads with other Sunni Arab nations despite the continuing decline in relations with the Palestinians, pushing Israel’s solidarity with them against Iran. One of his great accomplishments, working with President Trump, were the Abraham Accords, which opened normal diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

    • Key Figures. The main players in the latest twist in Israeli politics have very different agendas, but one common goal. Naftali Bennett, who leads a small right-wing party, and Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, have joined forces to form a diverse coalition to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
    • Range of Ideals. Spanning Israel’s fractious political spectrum from left to right, and relying on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party, the coalition, dubbed the “change government” by supporters, will likely mark a profound shift for Israel.
    • A Common Goal. After grinding deadlock that led to four inconclusive elections in two years, and an even longer period of polarizing politics and government paralysis, the architects of the coalition have pledged to get Israel back on track.
    • An Unclear Future. Parliament still has to ratify the fragile agreement in a confidence vote in the coming days. But even if it does, it remains unclear how much change the “change government” could bring to Israel because some of the parties involved have little in common besides animosity for Mr. Netanyahu.

Those accords survived the most recent exchange of fire last month with Hamas in Gaza, an 11-day clash that seemed, for now, to put the Palestinian issue back on the table. But even that conflict did not save Mr. Netanyahu.

An Israeli tank near the town of Sderot at the border with Gaza during the seven-week war with Hamas in 2014.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Mr. Netanyahu at the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.Credit...Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Mr. Netanyahu visiting the border fence between Israel and Jordan in 2016.Credit...Pool photo by Marc Israel Sellem

Some say that Mr. Netanyahu has sought his whole life to grow out of shadow of his brother and to make his own mark on Israeli history. There are streets all over Israel named after Yonatan Netanyahu.

Only when Mr. Netanyahu’s father, hawkish and dominating, died in 2012 at the age of 102, Israelis said the prime minister could feel liberated enough to try to make peace with the Palestinians.

But that has been a hope long deferred, as previous efforts at peace have proven hollow. Both the Israelis and Palestinians have pulled back from the deeply difficult compromises, both territorial and religious, that would be required for a lasting settlement of the unfinished war of 1948-49.

Mr. Netanyahu, with his father, Benzion Netanyahu, visiting the grave of his brother Yoni at Mount Herzl in 2009 in Jerusalem. Yoni Netanyahu was killed during military operations in Uganda in July 1976.Credit...Amos Ben Gershom/Government Press Office
Har Homa, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, has more than 25,000 residents.Credit...Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Mr. Netanyahu used one of the most prominent platforms in the world, the United States Congress, to warn against what he called a “bad deal” being negotiated with Iran to freeze its nuclear program in 2015.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Netanyahu was an early supporter of Mr. Trump and his presidency was a triumph for the Israeli leader. Having the support of an American president is crucial for Israelis and Mr. Netanyahu campaigned on his strong relationship with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran deal and, in an obvious effort to help Mr. Netanyahu in this latest campaign, moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

But Mr. Trump’s defeat was a blow to Mr. Netanyahu. President Biden is trying to restore the Iran nuclear deal over fierce Israeli objections, intervened to press Mr. Netanyahu to bring an end to the latest Gaza clash and has repeated his support for a negotiated, two-state solution to the Palestinian issue.

After President Trump’s election in 2016, Mr. Netanyahu found an ally in the White House.Credit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Protesters seen through a banner showing Mr. Netanyahu in 2018.Credit...Oded Balilty/Associated Press
Mr. Netanyahu visiting a market in Jerusalem in 2019 during his campaign for a fifth term as prime minister.Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Mr. Netanyahu remained in power so long not because Israelis think he is the nicest or cleanest man in the kingdom, but because they believed that he kept them safe and made them wealthier, and that he has succeeded in maintaining Israel’s security while reducing its isolation in the region.

Mr. Netanyahu celebrating an election victory in 2020.Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times
Mr. Netanyahu, right, with his lawyer at the Jerusalem district court in February during a hearing in his corruption trial.Credit...Pool photo by Reuven Castro
Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system lights up the sky over Tel Aviv as it tries to intercept rockets fired from Gaza during the war last month.Credit...Corinna Kern for The New York Times

Whether or not he ever returns to power again, after Mr. Netanyahu dies, there will be many streets named after him, too.

Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, after the Knesset approved the new coalition government on Sunday.Credit...Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
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