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