Binyamin Netanyahu

Former Israel ambassador to the United Nations, Binyamin Netanyahu (born 1949) became party head of the Likud opposition in 1993. He was then elected to the position of Prime Minister in 1996.

On March 24, 1993, Binyamin Netanyahu—better known to the Israeli public as "Bibi"—was elected leader of the right-of-center, nationalist Likud Party, at the age of 43 replacing the 77-year-old former prime minister, Yitzchak Shamir. Netanyahu's rapid, dramatic rise to high political office and surprise selection was likely to have a profound dual impact on Israeli national politics. First, in receiving 52.1 percent of the votes from the Likud rank-and-file membership in U.S.-style primaries he out-maneuvered three more senior Likud candidates. They were former foreign minister David Levy, the formidable Ariel Sharon, and Benny Begin, son of the former respected party leader and premier Menachem Begin. In this sense Netanyahu opened a new era in Likud Party politics. Second, by his youth and engaging media style, Bibi at the same time signaled a change at the national level of politics. The first of the younger Israeli-born generation of politicians to head a major party, his choice hastened a similar process among the other parties, especially in the rival Labor alignment, of passing over the "old guard" and promoting newer faces appealing to younger Israeli voters.

Netanyahu was born in Jerusalem on October 2, 1949, to Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a professor of history, and his wife Tsilla. At the age of 18 he began his military training. He served as a soldier and officer in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces from 1967 to 1972. In this he followed his brother, Yonatan ("Yoni") Netanyahu, the celebrated hero of the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation who was killed in action freeing a planeload of Israelis held hostage in Uganda. Another brother, Iddo Netanyahu, was a physician.

Bibi attended Cheltenham High School in Philadelphia and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. After graduating, he held several industrial consulting and managerial positions in the United States. In 1976 he returned to Israel to become director of the Jonathan Institute, founded to study ways for democratic governments to combat terrorism. With his wife Sarah, he had one son, Yasir.

In 1982 he began a diplomatic career when appointed deputy chief of mission to the United States, where he served until 1984, already then impressing people in Jerusalem with his television "persona" and ability to defend Israeli hard-line policies. In 1984 Netanyahu shifted from Washington to New York, serving for the next four years as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, again proving extremely effective.

Regarded as the protégé of Yitzchak Shamir, Netanyahu was recalled to Israel, where he acted as deputy foreign minister (1988 to 1991) and deputy minister for information in the prime minister's office (1991 to 1992), participating as a member of the Israeli delegation in the 1991 Madrid Middle East peace conference and subsequent early peace talks in Washington. All this time he involved himself increasingly in internal Likud Party politics, being elected in 1988 to the Knesset, where he was a strong advocate of electoral reform and helped to pass legislation establishing direct election of the prime minister.

Netanyahu gained control of the Likud Party in March 1993. His upset victory unquestionably constituted a tremendous personal triumph and overnight regained for him the world press attention he had enjoyed during the 1991 Persian Gulf war when he appeared regularly as a principal spokesman for Israel on CNN and other network commentary programs. However, he also faced the immediate challenge of reorganizing a party demoralized and in disarray following its defeat in the June 1992 general elections at the hands of Labor, led by Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres. No less of a challenge was the need for Netanyahu to orchestrate efforts at redefining the Likud Party's strategy and platform to reflect both changing global and Middle Eastern circumstances as well as national priorities. Nor would his task be made any easier by the lingering resentment of those party veterans who had lost out to Netanyahu, and who, each in his own way, continued to question Netanyahu's's leadership capabilities.

David Levy, thinking himself the logical successor to Begin and Shamir and having his source of power among the large numbers of working-class Sephardim (Israelis of oriental origin) from the development towns, openly criticized Netanyahu's early decisions and kept aloof from party activities. Israeli political experts similarly forecast that former general Sharon would work behind the scenes to undermine Netanyahu's authority and to be positioned to put forward his own candidacy should the new party leader lose popularity or commit a serious political misstep. One further complicating factor was the opposition Labor government's foreign policy initiative of September 1993 aimed at a territorial compromise with the Palestinians and paving the way for an eventual Palestinian state—a prospect to which the Likud had always taken the strongest opposition. To consolidate his position and to assert his leadership, Netanyahu was compelled to steer a middle-of-the-road course between ideology and pragmatism in trying to present to an Israeli public anxious for peace a viable Likud alternative peace strategy that stopped short of major territorial concessions.

After the November 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, elections were scheduled for May of the following year. During the campaign, Netanyahu and the Likud Party ran on a "Peace Through Security" platform, which on some points asserted that the peace process was rushed and thus doomed to fail. During the ugly campaign, Netanyahu was not seen as the front runner.

For the first time in Israeli history, voters could choose the prime minister and the Knesset representatives separately. On May 29, 1996, Netanyahu was elected prime minister, winning by a less than one percent margin to the surprise of many. He was the youngest man to ever hold the position. His election stunned the international community, who now feared that the hard-won Oslo agreements of 1992 and 1993, which Netanyahu inherited but did not like, would be railroaded by Israeli conservatives.

In September 1997 Netanyahu met with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, during her first mission to the Middle East. They discussed Israeli-Palestinian relations, and there appeared to be a wide gap between the philosopies of the Clinton administration and those of the Israeli government. Although Albright condemned terrorist activities, she urged Netanyahu to make concessions. Netanyahu responded that no progress would be made "until Arafat arrests terror suspects and increases cooperation with Israeli security forces … If they fight terrorism, there will be progress."

Further Reading on Binyamin Netanyahu

Binyamin Netanyahu edited Terrorism: How the West Can Win (1986); and authored A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World (1993), an analysis of Israel's situation in relation to the Arab world and to the West. See also Time, Sept. 15, 1997.