AFP - Benjamin Netanyahu, tasked on Friday by Israeli President Shimon Peres to form a new government after a cliffhanger election, is a wily right-winger once known as the "magician" for his ability to outwit his political rivals.
Just three years after Netanyahu led Likud to its worst electoral defeat, the consummate tactician is now set for a triumphant return to the country's most powerful post.
Likud more than doubled its seats to 27 from 12 in February 10 parliamentary elections. That was one seat less than Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima party chalked up, but Netanyahu had an advantage because of support from far-right parties.
Smooth-talking and ever ready with a soundbite in perfect American-accented English, the shrewd politician has managed to pull off stunning victories and also weather shocking defeats during his political career.
In 1996, he became Israel's youngest prime minister, at the age of 45, establishing a modern television-friendly administration and earning a leading spot in the nation's right-wing pantheon by pledging no peace without security.
Now 59, the former ambassador would appear to have buried the humiliation of the 2006 defeat, which followed the defection from Likud of political giant and former premier Ariel Sharon, who formed Kadima.
In the ensuing years "Bibi," as Netanyahu is widely known, watched his ratings climb steadily on the back of the unpopular 2006 war in Lebanon, a string of government corruption scandals and rising discontent over unabated militant rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
His popularity was not dented by the Gaza war in December and January, conducted by a Kadima-led cabinet, or by the election of US President Barack Obama who has said he is determined to pursue Middle East peace efforts "aggressively" after years of stagnation.
During his electoral campaign Netanyahu vowed to topple Hamas, calling the Islamist movement ruling Gaza "an Iranian proxy."
He also indicated peace talks should focus on improving Palestinian daily life before negotiations on core issues such as the future status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and the borders of the Palestinians' promised state.
In 1996, his tough talk on security saw him defeat Nobel Peace laureate Peres for the premiership, despite the enormous wave of sympathy for Peres generated by the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, his partner in the Oslo peace accords.
During Netanyahu's premiership he put the brakes on the peace process with the Palestinians, in part by authorising a major expansion of Jewish settlements.
But he also made concessions to the Palestinians under US pressure and concluded two agreements with the late Yasser Arafat, even shaking the hand of the man he had once branded a "war criminal."
After three years as prime minister, he was defeated in 1999 by Labour party chief Ehud Barak, who campaigned under the slogan of "Anyone but Bibi."
Netanyahu also faced charges of graft and fraud over gifts received while he was in office, but he was cleared in 2000.
His third wife, former air hostess Sarah, was the butt of persistent criticism in the Israeli media during her husband's premiership and the subject of sometimes lurid tales about her alleged lavish lifestyle and mistreatment of her staff.
Born on October 21, 1949, Netanyahu was educated in the United States after his father Bentzion, a history professor, was considered so right-wing in the Labour-dominated Israel of the time that he was forced to leave.
Before attending the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology, young Benjamin served in an Israeli army commando unit, took part in a number of operations and was wounded. He was discharged with the rank of captain.
He was deeply affected by the death of his elder brother Jonathan, who was killed leading the 1976 Israeli commando raid on an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinians to Entebbe, Uganda.
Netanyahu then plunged into studies of terrorism, writing three books on the subject.
His career took off when he was posted to Israel's embassy in Washington and later ambassador to the United Nations, before returning to launch a political career that has also seen him hold the foreign affairs and finance portfolios.
Netanyahu believes the time is not ripe to discuss the key issues raised in the Middle East peace negotiations, including the borders of a proposed Palestinian state and the future of Jerusalem, and wants the talks to focus on improving the economy and daily life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The 59-year-old Likud leader had vowed that if he regains the post of prime minister he held from 1996 to 1999, he would topple the Hamas rulers of Gaza and put a stop to rocket attacks which have continued sporadically since the January 18 end of Israel's 22-day Gaza military offensive.
The far-right parties he is likely to include in his coalition now Livni has made it clear Kadima will be in opposition have little interest in the peace talks.
Peres's office announced the decision to name Netanyahu after the president met with the 12 parliamentary factions to hear their recommendations.
While Likud, with 27 of the 120 parliamentary seats won one seat less than Kadima in the February 20 elections, Netanyahu emerged as the only person able to rally sufficient support to form a government coalition.
He cleared a major hurdle when ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman gave him the support of his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party which will have 15 MPs in the new parliament.
Netanyahu can count on the support of 65 members of parliament, but will have to rely on parties to the right of his own despite his stated preference for a broad coalition.
"A narrow right-wing government is Netanyahu's default choice," the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot newspaper said.
"He knows that such a government will not live out its term, and will become a 'paralysis government' that is dependent on small factions and sectarian parties," the daily added.
Kadima had earlier suggested a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu similar to the one Israel had in 1984 after another close ballot, when the two leading parties each held the post of prime minister for two years.
Netanyahu and Lieberman rejected the idea.