Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister who is now heading its most rightwing government, is not known for moderation. He built a career promising security to Israelites and has emerged as the most powerful and influential leader in the Jewish state’s history after David Ben-Gurion. Yet, he will go down in history as the leader under whose watch Israel’s greatest security crisis unfolded.
The October 7 cross-border attack by Hamas, in which at least 1,400 people were killed, was the first major ground invasion into Israel proper since 1948. Mr. Netanyahu, a former soldier, immediately declared war on Hamas. About 11,000 Palestinians were killed in just four weeks of Israeli attacks on Gaza, but the Likud leader is in no mood to halt the offensive. He says his goal is to “crush Hamas”. A Minister in his Cabinet says Gaza should be nuked. The government promises a “lasting security role” for Israel in Gaza, indicating that it would reoccupy the Palestinian enclave. As the war grinds on with much of the international focus staying on Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, 74, finds himself at the centre of a political and security storm.
Born in 1949 in Tel Aviv, a year after the state of Israel was formed, he grew up in Israel and the U.S. He enlisted in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in 1967, the year of the June War in which Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt and Golan Heights from Syria — all in six days. Mr. Netanyahu would become a combat soldier and a team leader at an elite special forces unit of the IDF, Sayeret Matkal, “a unit that changed the reality of our lives,” as he later recalled. When Sayeret Matkal was deployed in 1976 to Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue hostages held at the city’s Airport, Mr. Netanyahu’s older brother Yonatan was the commander of the unit.
Militants of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations had hijacked an Air France plane with 248 passengers and made it land in Uganda, which was then ruled by the dictator Idi Amin. The Sayeret Matkal’s mission was successful as most of the hostages were rescued, but Yonatan was killed in action — the IDF’s only fatality. The loss of his brother, according to Mr. Netanyahu, has shaped his views on “terrorism”, which he called a form of totalitarianism.
The Oslo years
Arguably the most influential politician in Israel today, Mr. Netanyahu rose to power in 1996 when Israel was undergoing major changes. Three years earlier, Israel, led by Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) had signed the Oslo Accord. The PLO recognised the state of Israel and the latter agreed to the formation of a provisional government (Palestinian Authority or PA) in the occupied territories. After the tumultuous period of the first Intifada (the Palestinian uprising) that began in 1987, there was a strong constituency in Israel for peace. But this period also saw the growing strength of the political Right and the threat of Jewish extremism. On November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Rabin, the main architect of the Oslo Accords, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist. Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres called for early elections, which he thought would strengthen his hands to go ahead with the peace plan. But in the election, the first direct election to choose the Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, a hardline critic of the Oslo process, emerged victorious.
In power, Mr. Netanyahu made some minor concessions, but walked back on several promises his immediate predecessors had made. When the Palestinian Authority was formed, both sides agreed that it would be the first step of an ambitious peace plan. The real goal was to find a permanent solution to the Palestine question through the two-state proposal. But the PA, with limited powers in parts of the occupied lands, became a permanent mechanism as the Oslo process unravelled under Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership. His version was that the peace process made Palestinian militancy stronger. Hamas, the Islamist movement that had also opposed the Oslo Accords, had carried out several suicide attacks during this period. Mr. Netanyahu held the PA, then led by Yasser Arafat, responsible for increased violence. Dennis Ross, U.S. President Bill Clinton’s peace envoy, then said “neither President Clinton nor Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright believed that Bibi had any real interest in pursuing peace.”
Mr. Netanyahu has been consistently opposed to making any major concessions to the Palestinians. For him, “undivided Jerusalem” is Israel’s “eternal capital”. He is staunchly against the return of the Palestinian refugees (who were forced to flee their homes in 1948 when the state of Israel was formed) as part of any settlement. “Any demand for resettling Palestinian refugees within Israel undermines Israel’s continued existence as the state of the Jewish people,” he once said. He resolutely opposed Ariel Sharon’s decision to unilaterally pull back Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. “The unilateral evacuation brought neither peace nor security,” said Mr. Netanyahu. He has also consistently supported Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories, which for him is the “natural growth” of the population.
In September 1967, a few months after the June war, Arab countries passed the ‘Three Nos’ resolution in the Khartoum summit — “No peace with Israel, No negotiations with Israel and No recognition of Israel”. In an indirect reference to the Khartoum resolution, Mr. Netanyahu later came up with his own policy of “Three Nos — “No withdrawal from the Golan Heights, No discussion of the status of Jerusalem and No negotiations under any preconditions.”
Arab countries have walked back on the Khartoum Nos. In 1994, a year after the first Oslo Accord was signed, Jordan reached a peace treaty with Israel. In 2020, four more Arab countries — the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan (where the Khartoum summit took place) and Morocco — normalised ties with Israel. But Mr. Netanyahu has not compromised on any of his Nos. On the other side, he tightened Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and enforced a crippling blockade on the Gaza Strip, which saw repeated, disproportionate Israeli bombardments in retaliation for rocket attacks by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
Legacy at stake
But after spending 16 years in power and playing a critical role in shaping Israel’s domestic politics and foreign policy, Mr. Netanyahu hasn’t managed to resolve any of his country’s key security problems. Whatever he inherited — whether it’s Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran — are still plaguing the Jewish state. And the October 7 attack by Hamas did not only expose the failures of Israel’s intelligence agencies but also the holes in the security model Mr. Netanyahu has built over decades.
In his long long career, Mr. Netanyahu has hardly offered concessions and compromises to the Palestinians, which was also his selling point during elections. He once said that no Palestine state would be formed on his watch, effectively dumping the two-state plan. He thrives in crisis. He had always bounced back. But this time he is facing daunting challenges. He has to “crush Hamas” as he has promised; he has to get the hostages released and he has to lead his coalition out of the storms that are coming. He knows his legacy hinges on the outcome of the war.