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Mint Explainer: Who is Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longtime prime minister?

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As Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza continues, one man has been at the centre of attention – Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also known as Bibi. Netanyahu has arguably been the central figure in Israel’s politics since the 1990s. His political longevity and his highly divisive time in office have made him one of Israel’s most consequential leaders.

What is Netanyahu’s background?

Born in 1949 in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu spent much of his childhood in Israel and the United States. He returned to Israel and joined the military before serving in Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando unit. His elder brother, Yonatan Netanyahu, became a household name after he was killed leading the famed Entebbe raid to rescue hostages from a hijacked airline in 1976. 

Netanyahu rose to prominence in the 1980s as a diplomat. During his spell as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, he was noted for his slick and effective media persona, which he acquired while defending Israel’s foreign policy in the US and at the UN. He entered politics soon afterwards and rose through the ranks quickly. In 1996 he became Israel’s youngest ever prime minister and has remained a fixture of national politics ever since.

What does Netanyahu stand for?

Netanyahu has long backed a hardline stance on terrorism and national-security issues. His image as a tough prime minister has been an enduring political asset. His critics, which include former US President Bill Clinton, allege that his hardline policies have reduced space for an understanding with the Palestinians. 

His support for illegal Jewish settlements on lands earmarked for an independent Palestinian state have invited much international censure. Yet, his tenure also saw the successful completion of the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel normalise ties with the UAE and Bahrain, and later Morocco. His philosophy of “peace through strength” seemed to have earned dividends.

Is he a divisive figure?

His most recent tenure in office has seen a highly charged battle over judicial reforms, which triggered massive protests in Israel. His political bedfellows, including staunchly right-wing parties, were once considered fringe elements before he gave them legitimacy. He has also faced serious corruption allegations. All of this, and his long tenure at the top, have simultaneously made him Israel’s most divisive and most effective politician.

How will Hamas’s 7 October attack affect Netanyahu?

The consensus seems to be that Hamas’s attack has delivered a body blow to Netanyahu’s popularity. Everything from his government’s failure to find a long-term solution with the Palestinians to the intelligence lapses that led to the Hamas attack have been roundly criticised. 

For a politician who has built a reputation for putting Israel’s national security above all else, the Hamas attacks may prove to be a death blow. Numerous analysts have speculated that Netanyahu will find it difficult to remain in power once the crisis subsides.

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