Israel's Netanyahu: security hawk who has served record term

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, is a right-wing politician and former elite soldier nicknamed "Mr Security" and a close ally of US President Donald Trump.

As of Thursday, the 70-year-old is also the first premier in Israeli history to be indicted in office, accused of corruption charges that could end the veteran leader's political career.

The burly son of a historian with the familiar grey comb-over and deep voice has entrenched himself at the top so firmly he has been labelled "King Bibi", referring to his childhood nickname of Bibi.

The Likud party leader has stayed in power with a mix of divisive populism and attempts to portray himself as a world statesman, stressing his ties with Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other foreign leaders.

A hardliner on Iran and the Palestinian issue, he has pledged to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if re-elected, which many regard as a play for vital right-wing nationalist votes.

That and his stated intention to annex Israeli settlements in the wider West Bank could effectively end any remaining hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu is now in a tough spot, but he has spent years outlasting opponents and could do so again.

He denies the charges and is not legally required to resign if indicted, only if convicted with all appeals exhausted, but he would have to withstand intense political pressure if he wants to battle on.

- Brother's death -

Netanyahu has spent years at the top of Israel politics, much of his popularity owing to his nickname "Mr Security" -- always a top concern for Israeli citizens.

He frequently talks openly about Israel's air war in Syria against Israel's archfoe Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, less than 18 months after Israel's creation.

He and his wife Sara have two sons, and he has a daughter from a previous marriage.

The son of a history professor active in Israeli right-wing politics, Netanyahu grew up partly in the United States.

He attended the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and with his fluent, American-accented English would appear on television speaking forcefully in defence of Israel.

He performed his Israeli military service with an elite unit and was wounded in combat, but another family member's service may have affected him more deeply.

In 1976, his brother Yonatan died in a Israeli commando raid to rescue hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda.

Netanyahu has called the operation "a very dramatic national experience" and "one of great personal consequence".

- 'Too pragmatic' -

Israeli politics in its early years was dominated by the Labour party, but the first victory by the Likud, then led by Menachem Begin, in 1977 helped lay the groundwork for Netanyahu's political future.

His career took off when he was posted to the Israeli embassy in Washington and later served as ambassador to the United Nations.

He became Israel's youngest prime minister in 1996, at 46, but was defeated three years later.

Netanyahu would return to power in 2009 and has remained in office ever since.

While Israel's economy has prospered under his watch and his security credentials have shored up his right-wing base, many call his politics too divisive.

They accuse him of scare tactics and pitting Israelis against each other by castigating those who disagree.

His biographer Neill Lochery, author of "The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu", said "the trouble that the world had in dealing with Netanyahu was not that he was an ideologue".

The problem, he wrote, is rather "that he was too pragmatic, and prone to change his mind in order to curry favour with key voting groups in Israel."