Netanyahu, Binyamin (1949–)

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Netanyahu, Binyamin

Binyamin (Benjamin) Netanyahu, popularly nicknamed "Bibi," is an Israeli politician and diplomat who has been a leading member of the conservative Likud Party. He was Israel's prime minister from 1996 to 1999. At the time, he was the country's youngest prime minister and the first to be born after the creation of the State of Israel.


Netanyahu was born on 21 October 1949 in Tel Aviv. He grew up in Jerusalem until his family moved to the United States in 1963 when he was a teenager. His father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, was a prominent professor of Jewish history and editor of the Hebrew Encyclopedia. Netanyahu attended Cheltenham High School, near Philadelphia; after graduating, he returned to Israel in 1967 and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

During his military service (1967–1972), he served in an elite commando unit and participated in a number of military operations, including the rescue of hostages in a hijacked Sabena airliner at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv in 1972. In the same year, he was cited for outstanding operational leadership by Major General Motta Gur. Netanyahu later took part in the 1973 War and reached the rank of captain.

Netanyahu returned to the United States for his university studies, taking courses at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He attained a B.Sc. in architecture and an M.Sc. in business management from MIT. Following his studies, Netanyahu worked in the private sector from 1976 to 1982, first with the Boston Consulting Group, an international business consultancy, and then in a senior management position at Rim Industries, Inc.

In 1976 Netanyahu's older brother, Yonatan ("Yoni"), was killed leading an IDF commando raid against a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda. Yoni Netanyahu became a posthumous hero in Israel and the Netanyahu family name became well known. This event deeply affected the younger Netanyahu and led to his lifelong concern with international terrorism. He later organized two international conferences on ways to combat international terrorism, in 1979 in Jerusalem and in 1984 in Washington, D.C., and edited and wrote a number of books on the subject.

In 1982 Netanyahu was appointed deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. He served under Ambassador Moshe Arens, who became his mentor. Two years later, in 1984, he was appointed Israel's ambassador at the United Nations, a position he held for four years. During this time, he became a familiar face on American television and became known as an articulate and effective advocate of Israel's cause.

In 1988 Netanyahu returned to Israel and began his involvement in domestic politics. He was elected to the Knesset as a Likud member and was appointed deputy foreign minister in the government of Yitzhak Shamir. In this capacity, Netanyahu was Israel's principal international spokesperson during the 1991 Gulf War, for which he became well known to Israelis. Following the war, he was a senior member of the Israeli delegation to the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid, which initiated the first direct peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. In the same year, he was appointed deputy prime minister (1991–1992).


Name: Binyamin (Benjamin) Netanyahu

Birth: 1949, Tel Aviv, Israel

Family: Wife (third), Sara; three children: Noa, Yair, and Avner

Nationality: Israeli

Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), B.Sc. in architecture, 1974, and M.Sc. in business management, 1976


  • 1984: Appointed ambassador to the United Nations
  • 1988: Enters Knesset, becomes deputy minister of foreign affairs
  • 1993–1999: Chair of Likud Party
  • 1996–1999: Prime minister
  • 1999: Resigns Likud leadership following election defeat; temporarily retires from politics
  • 2002–2003: Minister of foreign affairs
  • 2003–2005: Minister of finance
  • 2005–present: Chair of Likud

Leading Likud

Likud leader Shamir retired from politics in the wake of the Likud's electoral defeat to yitzhak rabin's Labor Party in the 1992 Knesset elections. In the Likud Party's first primary election to select its leader, held on 25 March 1993, Netanyahu was victorious, defeating Binyamin ("Benny") Begin, son of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and veteran politician David Levy. In the course of his campaign, Netanyahu publicly confessed to having had an extramarital affair.

As Likud leader and head of the parliamentary opposition, Netanyahu was a fierce opponent of the Rabin government's policy toward the Palestinians. He sharply criticized the Declaration of Principles adopted at Oslo in 1993 by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the subsequent Oslo 2 ("Interim Agreement") of 1995.

Netanyahu accused the Rabin government of jeopardizing Israel's security by entrusting it to a "terrorist organization"—yasir arafat's PLO. He also staunchly defended Israel's right to possess the entire historic "Land of Israel" (Eretz Yisrael), including the West Bank (often referred to in Israel as "Judea and Samaria") and Gaza. Netanyahu spoke against Oslo at public rallies attended by right-wing extremists who denounced Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister shimon peres as traitors. After Rabin was assassinated in November 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist, Netanyahu was criticized for helping to foster an intensely polarized political climate, which some believe created the conditions for Rabin's assassination.

In the campaign for the May 1996 elections—the first in which Israelis voted directly for prime minister as well as for party—Netanyahu moved to the political center. Despite his earlier rejection of the Oslo Accords, he now accepted them and vowed to continue the peace process with the Palestinians. At the same time, he stated that he would be a tougher negotiator than his opponent, the incumbent prime minister Peres, who had succeeded Rabin. He promised Israelis "peace with security." After a series of suicide bombings inside Israel, this message appealed to many, and Netanyahu won narrowly. He took office on 18 June.

Netanyahu as Prime Minister

Netanyahu's three-year premiership represented a major turning point in the Oslo process. Strong international, especially U.S., pressure, coupled with continued domestic support for Oslo, effectively forced Netanyahu to continue it. However, although he could not put an end to it, Netanyahu did his best to stall and drag out negotiations. His government also lifted the freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that had been in place under the previous government, allowing for a rapid increase in the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Despite a deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations during Netanyahu's tenure as prime minister, the peace process continued. In January 1997 Netanyahu signed the Hebron Agreement with Palestinian leader Arafat, in which Israel agreed to transfer control of the West Bank town of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority (PA), while keeping 20 percent of the town—the central area where more than 400 Jewish settlers lived among 130,000 Palestinians—under Israeli control. In October 1998 he signed the Wye River Memorandum with Arafat, reluctantly agreeing to carry out a further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. These agreements, largely the results of intense U.S. pressure and mediation, caused Netanyahu to lose popularity with the right in Israel.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian peace process dominated Netanyahu's premiership, economic reform was also an important item on his agenda. A proponent of neoliberal economic policies, Netanyahu liberalized Israel's foreign currency regulations, accelerated the privatization of government-owned companies and reduced the budget deficit.

Politically weakened by the loss of right-wing support because of his concessions to the Palestinians and by corruption scandals, Netanyahu called for early elections in May 1999. In the election for prime minister, he lost against his only challenger, One Israel (Labor) Party leader Ehud Barak. Following this defeat, he resigned as leader of the Likud and retired from politics.

Netanyahu's retirement from Israeli politics was only temporary. He returned in 2002 when Likud Party leader and then-prime minister ariel sharon appointed him foreign minister, following Labor's departure from the government coalition. After the 2003 general election, Netanyahu accepted the post of minister of finance in Sharon's new coalition government, after being assured of a free hand in economic policy making.

As finance minister, Netanyahu implemented a controversial program of free-market reforms aimed at stimulating economic growth in Israel, involving privatization of public services and companies, tax cuts, and severe welfare cuts. Due, at least in part, to these measures, the Israeli economy grew by 4.2 percent in 2004.

Netanyahu adamantly opposed Prime Minister Sharon's "disengagement" plan, which called for a complete unilateral civilian and military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the dismantling of twenty-one settlements and the evacuation of approximately nine thousand Jewish settlers, as well as the dismantling of four small settlements in the northern West Bank and the evacuation of their residents. Netanyahu was one of the leaders of the Likud "rebels" who fought against the plan, and tried to topple Sharon as party leader. When this failed, Netanyahu resigned in protest from Sharon's cabinet in August 2005.

Leading Likud Again

In November, Sharon resigned from the Likud to form a new centrist party, Kadima. Elections for the Likud leadership were held on 20 December 2005, and Netanyahu won with 47 percent of the vote.

In Likud's campaign for the March 2006 Knesset election, Netanyahu attacked the "convergence" plan presented by new Kadima leader ehud olmert, who succeeded Sharon after the latter's stroke in January 2006, and warned of the dangers to Israel of carrying out another unilateral withdrawal. The Israeli public, however, was unconvinced and Kadima ended up winning the largest number of Knesset seats in the election. Likud managed to win only twelve seats, down from its previous twenty-nine in the 2003 election. As a result, Netanyahu's Likud entered the opposition after the new Kadima-led coalition government was established in May 2006.


As the son of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who was once a senior aide to Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, founder of Revisionist Zionism, Netanyahu grew up under the influence of that movement's ideology. This right-wing, militant version of Zionism called for establishing a Jewish state with a Jewish majority in all of present-day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan (the claim to the latter territory was dropped by the late 1960s).

In accordance with this ideological background, before becoming prime minister, Netanyahu firmly opposed withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian-populated areas captured by Israel in the 1967 War. In addition to believing that these areas rightfully belonged to the Jewish people, Netanyahu also believed that Israel's security requirements necessitated keeping the West Bank to protect Israel's eastern border from Arab attack. He therefore sharply criticized the Oslo agreements signed by the Rabin government with the PLO, which entailed Israel's handing over control of parts of the Occupied Territories to a newly created Palestinian Authority headed by Arafat.

Once in power, however, Netanyahu acted more as a pragmatist than an ideologue. Knowing that he would jeopardize U.S. support for Israel and lose support from many Israelis in the political center if he abandoned Oslo, Netanyahu reluctantly continued it. Instead of championing "greater Israel," he emphasized the need for security and insisted on the principle of reciprocity, meaning that Palestinian gains, such as redeployment of Israeli forces and expansion of autonomy, had to be linked to genuine Palestinian efforts toward peace, especially countering Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis (which had escalated in the 1994–1996 period before he entered office).

Netanyahu's intense focus on combating Palestinian terrorism was not only a response to the widespread fears and anxieties of the Israeli public who had suffered from a string of suicide terrorist attacks, but also to his older brother Yonatan's death at the hands of terrorists in the commando raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976. Fighting Terrorism (the title of a book by Netanyahu on the subject) became a personal mission for Netanyahu after that tragic event.

By eschewing revisionist ideology and pragmatically continuing the Oslo process, Netanyahu helped move the Likud Party toward the center of Israel's political spectrum. Under Netanyahu, the Likud became a less ideological, more politically conservative center-right political party. This shift continued under his successor as Likud leader, Sharon.


Yonatan ("Yoni") Netanyahu, the older brother of Binyamin Netanyahu, is one of Israel's most famous soldiers. A member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) elite Sayeret Matkal unit, he was awarded the IDF's Medal of Distinguished Service for his heroic conduct in the 1973 War. He became a posthumous hero in Israel for leading a commando raid at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the German Baader-Meinhof Gang were holding Israeli and Jewish hostages after an airline hijacking. The daring nighttime raid, on 4 July 1976, was renamed "Operation Yonatan" in his honor; he was the only Israeli soldier killed during the raid. One hundred hostages were released and three died, while twenty Ugandan soldiers and all seven hijackers were killed in a battle that lasted thirty-five minutes.

Another significant contribution that Netanyahu made to Israeli politics was his political style and media strategy, which was heavily influenced by his familiarity with American politics. Netanyahu was the most "American" of Israel's leaders, having been educated in the United States and lived there as a businessperson and a diplomat. Pragmatic, media-savvy, and a great orator, Netanyahu pioneered the use of sound bites, attack ads, focus groups, and constant public opinion polling in Israeli politics. He even hired the American Republican political consultant Arthur Finkelstein to run his 1996 campaign. The success of this campaign led Barak, Netanyahu's challenger in the 1999 election, to use American Democratic political consultants Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg in his campaign. Hence, Netanyahu played a large role in bringing about the "Americanization" of Israeli politics.


International attitudes toward Netanyahu, like those of Israelis, tend to be highly positive or highly negative. He was considered to be a skilled diplomat for Israel, popular with Western audiences because of his flawless English and mastery of the Western media. He was especially popular in the United States and among American Jews.

His three-year tenure as prime minister, however, was marked by clashes with the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton and international criticism of his foot-dragging in negotiations with the Palestinians. As a result, he became deeply unpopular with international supporters of the Oslo peace process. Despite being seen as unprincipled and power-hungry by some, he has always been regarded as an adept politician and a highly articulate defender of Israel's cause.


Netanyahu's principal legacy lies in the historic significance of the two Israeli-Palestinian agreements he signed as prime minister: the 1996 Hebron Agreement and the 1997 Wye River Memorandum. Netanyahu became the first Likud leader to agree to withdraw from parts of the West Bank, thereby effectively abandoning the principle of full Jewish possession of Eretz Yisrael—a principle that had been at the heart of right-wing Zionism since the days of Jabotinsky. Under Netanyahu, the Likud's uncompromising opposition to the partition of Eretz Yisrael was irrevocably undermined. The principle of territorial compromise had been accepted and implemented by Israeli governments on both the right and the left. After Netanyahu, the long-running domestic debate in Israel over the future of the West Bank and Gaza was no longer about whether Israel should withdraw, but by how much, how quickly, and in exchange for what.


Drake, Laura. "A Netanyahu Primer." Journal of Palestine Studies 26, no. 1 (1996): 58-69.

Inbar, Efraim. "Netanyahu Takes Over." In Israel at the Polls, 1996, edited by Daniel Elazar and Shmuel Sandler. London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1998.

Lochery, Neill. "Netanyahu Deciphered." Middle East Quarterly 6, no. 1 (March 1999): 29-36.

Netanyahu, Binyamin. A Place among Nations: Israel and the World. New York: Bantam, 1993.

――――――. A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place among the Nations. New York: Warner, 2000.

――――――. Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists, 2nd ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Shindler, Colin. Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream. London: I.B. Tauris, 1995.

Sprinzak, Ehud. "The Politics of Paralysis: Netanyahu's Safety Belt." Foreign Affairs 77, no. 4 (July/August 1998): 18-28.

                                               Dov Waxman