Profile: Netanyahu: Israel's uncontended ruler

2013-01-19 22:04:44 GMT2013-01-20 06:04:44(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Anat Shalev

JERUSALEM, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- Despite a growing deficit, increasing isolation from the international community, widening gaps between Israel's rich and poor, it seems like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way for another term as prime minister.

Netanyahu, 63, was born in Tel Aviv to prominent historian Benzion Netanyahu, a member of the nationalistic Revisionist Zionism faction, which supports "Greater Israel," a notion charging that the Israeli state should spread from the Mediterranean Sea in the west and up to the Jordan River in the east.

When he was a teenager, the Netanyahu family moved to the United States and he was educated in an American high school. After his service at a commando unit in Israel, he returned to the United States to complete his academic degrees in architecture, business and political sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During the 1970s, Netanyahu worked alongside former Republican Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, as a business consultant at the Boston Consulting group. During those formative years, Netanyahu developed his Thacherist-like economic views, supporting private ownership and less governmental involvement in the market.

During a short period in Israel at the end of the 1970s, Netanyahu worked as a researcher of terrorism at an anti-terror NGO named after his late brother, Jonathan, who died while commanding a special forces rescue operation to release Israeli hostages in Entebbe, Uganda. It was at this time when Netanyahu made his initial contacts with Israeli right-wing politicians.

In the early 1980s, Netanyahu served at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and became Israel's ambassador to the United Nations in 1984. Netanyahu wrote several books about terrorism at that time and predicted a possible future conflict between Israel and Iran.

Netanyahu joined Israeli politics as a Likud member in the early 1990s, and expressed his strong opposition to the 1993 Oslo Accords, an interim framework agreement providing the Palestinians with self-government.

In the mid 1990s, a wave of suicide bombs washed over Israel and hundreds of Israelis were killed in suicide attacks on Israeli buses, cafes or other public venues.

The slogan that accompanied Netanyahu while he was running for office was "making a safe peace" and he won the elections in 1996.

Although his premiership mainly marked a slowdown in the Israeli peace process with the Palestinians and its neighbors, Netanyahu negotiated with the Palestinian National Authority in 1998, yielding the Wye River Memorandum to implement an interim agreement from 1995. He has throughout his term emphasized his red lines: No to withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no to discuss Jerusalem and no negotiations with preconditions.

However, the Wye River agreement, along with other concessions he had made to the Palestinians in Hebron, turned right-wing voters from him. Left-wing voters opposed his hawkish views. He was also widely criticized throughout his term for playing out different parts of the Israeli public against one another. One of his memorable quotes from that era was when he said that the Israeli left-wing has "forgotten what it means to be Jewish."

All this has led to his defeat in the 1999 elections to then Labor leader Ehud Barak. He retired from political life that year and worked as a consultant at an Israeli communications equipment developer, only to return two years later with the collapse of Barak's government.

He was appointed as the finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government in 2003, carrying out tough reforms cutting child benefits for single-mothers, among others. Being given a free hand at his position, he carried out his market liberalization reform policies.

He left Sharon's government in 2005 after the latter conducted the disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip and spent the next four years as head of the opposition. After six years of rule by the center Kadima Party, the right-wing bloc won the majority of seats in the Knesset (parliament) and Likud head Netanyahu was assigned again to the role of prime minister.

Netanyahu spent most of his second term focusing on Iran, which he called "the gravest threat to our existence since the war of independence" during his inauguration speech. He has continually compared Iran's leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and used the memory of the holocaust, stirring criticism of contempt to the memory of the holocaust by putting it into political use.

"By focusing solely on Iran," the Ha'aretz daily columnist Yossi Melman noted, "Netanyahu took the Palestinian issue off the world's agenda."

The assertion seemed to be proven right. Although at the beginning of his term Netanyahu made some promises for advancing the peace talks with the Palestinians, as his term carried on, the Palestinian topic seemed to disappear from the government's agenda.

Not long after being elected in 2009, only ten days after U.S. President Barack Obama made his famous Cairo speech, Netanyahu, feeling the pressure of making concessions to the Palestinians, gave his renowned Bar Ilan speech (named after the university it was given at) on June 14, 2009.

In the speech, Netanyahu endorsed the two-state solution, with a "demilitarized Palestinian state" alongside Israel, with Jerusalem remaining Israel's capital. He had declared he is willing to adopt several peace initiatives and called to freeze the construction in the West Bank for ten months.

However, words aside and deeds aside. During the ten-month period, the construction in the West Bank settlements carried on de-facto. In reality, the announced freeze had no significant effect on the building of settlements.

This was not the first time or the last Netanyahu found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, he has the international community on his back, and on the other, the strong settlers' lobby, without which Netanyahu loses a strong electoral base.

Under the settlers' pressure, Netanyahu carried on with plans to build in the settlements, and in March 2010, while U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Jerusalem, the Interior Ministry announced the approval of 1,600 new housing units in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. This, along with Israel's refusal to commit to freezing the construction in the settlement as a precondition to direct negotiations, brought the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians to a halt that year.

The reason Netanyahu has been so popular with the Israeli public for over two decades is his persona as a right-wing worrier for Israel's security, domestic observers say. However, growing awareness among young Israelis to social and economic injustices in the country in the summer of 2011 caused problems for Netanyahu.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets, complaining about the extreme privatization processes, of tycoons controlling most of Israel's resources, the inequality and the hardships of the middle class to make a living and afford housing and the government's priorities, spending billions in the settlements and in security spending instead of in civil, social and educational causes.

Netanyahu and his team tried to take off the topic from the agenda amid the looming elections and bring forward his experience as prime minister in the fields of security and diplomacy.

By the end of 2012, it is safe to say that Netanyahu and his new ally, Avigdor Lieberman (head of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party), have succeeded in their goal. Although opinion polls showed deteriorating support percentage of Netanyahu's economic policies, he has won numerous points as the most experienced and suited person for the role of prime minister in opinion polls.

Specifically, his recent announcements of building thousands of housing units in the West Bank and east Jerusalem were intended for his right-wing voters, to reinstate him as "the prince of the right," playing on Israelis' memories of suicide bombings and the farther memories of the holocaust.

After four years of running one of the most stable governments in the history of the country, the secret to Netanyahu's administration is trying to please everybody with promises and letting different groups hear what they want to hear, a local commentator said.

However, after the elections, in case he is re-elected, Netanyahu will have to face pressures from the growing far-right- wing faction, demands from the international community, as well as the Palestinians and the demands for economic reforms from the Israeli people, who are slowly becoming aware that in Israel, not everything is about security.

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