Is this the moment for Netanyahu?

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Herzliya Conference, Feb. 4, 2009. (Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center)

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Herzliya Conference, Feb. 4, 2009. (Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Two days before Election Day, Benjamin Netanyahu planted a tree on the Golan Heights as a gesture to show he has no intention of returning the strategic plateau to Syria.

During the campaign, the Likud Party leader also vowed to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza and said he wouldn’t hand over more territory to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank until an "economic peace" is achieved between Israel and the Palestinians.

If Netanyahu ends up getting the chance to lead a coalition goverment — and given the outcome of Tuesday’s election, he might – the question of whether or not Netanyahu will stick to these hard-line positions may be determined in large part by the coalition he puts together.

This time, Netanyahu has said, he has no intention of repeating the mistake he made in his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999: relying on a narrow, right-wing coalition to govern. Given the conflicted nature of Tuesday’s outcome, in which Kadima won the most seats as a single party but the Likud-led right wing bloc the most seats as a bloc, a broad-based national unity government may be in the cards.

If Netanyahu is the one to lead it, he’d have a lot more room to maneuver than last time around.

In the mid-1990s, Netanyahu also ran a hard-line campaign but as prime minister wound up handing West Bank territory over to the Palestinian Authority and even secretly negotiating with the Syrians over the return of nearly all of the Golan.

His term in office helped give Netanyahu a reputation as someone who cannot be trusted — a reputation his opponents tried to exploit in this campaign.

Ten years on, Netanyahu has worked hard to rehabilitate his image. But he remains something of an uncertain quantity to Israelis, and the question stands: What, exactly, would Israel be getting in a Prime Minister Netanyahu?

Benjamin Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv on Oct. 21, 1949. His father, Benzion, a renowned historian, had been secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the charismatic leader of the hawkish revisionist Zionist movement that claimed title to a Greater Israel, including both the east and west banks of the Jordan River. In 1963, after Benzion felt he had been denied a permanent post at the Hebrew University because of his revisionist affiliation, the family moved to America.

Benjamin, who became known as Bibi, spent most of his formative teenage years in the United States, graduating from Cheltenham High School in Philadelphia. In 1967 he returned to Israel for service in the Israel Defense Forces. For five years he served in Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando unit, attaining the rank of captain.

In May 1969, weighed down by heavy equipment, Netanyahu nearly drowned in the Suez Canal while on a mission during the 1968-70 war of attrition with Egypt. He took part in several still-classified cross-border raids and won the respect of the unit’s commander. Ironically, that commander was the man who defeated him for the premiership in 1999 and remains one of his chief political rivals today: Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader.

After his army service, Netanyahu returned to the United States to study architecture and business administration at MIT, graduating with a master’s degree in 1977. As a student he appeared several times on national TV pleading Israel’s cause. To hone his skills, he took lessons in public speaking from top communications consultant Lilyan Wilder.

In his first year of graduate school, his older brother, Yoni, then commander of Sayeret Matkal, was killed in one of the IDF’s most spectacular missions: the rescue in July 1976 of some 100 hijacked Israelis and other hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

In late 1978, after working briefly for the Boston Consultancy Group, Netanyahu returned to Israel, taking a job as marketing chief for a large furniture company. His big break came four years later when Moshe Arens, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, appointed him deputy chief of mission. The first Lebanon war against the PLO had broken out in June 1982, and Arens needed an articulate spokesman. The young, telegenic Netanyahu proved the ideal choice.

From there, Netanyahu went on to make his reputation as Israel’s eloquent ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1986. Affluent American Jews, who already saw him as a potential national leader, formed a support group dubbed "the yellow submarine," which would lay low until needed.

When Netanyahu returned to Israel in 1987 and joined the Likud, he already was a star. In 1988, with the help of Avigdor Lieberman — now leader of the staunchly right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party but then Netanyahu’s right-hand man — Netanyahu was elected to the Knesset. He immediately was named deputy foreign minister by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and played a prominent PR role during the 1991 Gulf War, when Israel came under Iraqi Scud missile attack, and at the Madrid peace conference later that year.

Madrid paved the way for the 1992 defeat of the intransigent Shamir and the election of Laborite Yitzhak Rabin. Shamir withdrew from politics and Netanyahu, just 44, won the Likud leadership, beating out Menachem Begin’s son, Benny Begin, as well as outgoing foreign minister David Levy.

As Likud leader, Netanyahu took an uncompromisingly critical stand against the Oslo process and was widely blamed for helping fuel the incitement that eventually led to Rabin’s assassination in November 1995. On one occasion, Netanyahu led a procession with a coffin through Ra’anana; on another he spoke from a balcony over Zion Square in Jerusalem where demonstrators held up pictures of Rabin in an SS uniform.

The right was discredited by the assassination, but Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor as prime minister, did not immediately call for new elections. A spate of suicide bombings the following year turned the tide back toward the right, and on May 29, 1996, in the first direct election of a prime minister in Israel’s history, Netanyahu defeated Peres by just 1 percent of the vote.

As prime minister, Netanyahu built a narrow right-wing government and introduced the "reciprocity principle" by which Israel would make concessions to the Palestinians only in return for substantive gains.

As a consequence, Netanyahu constantly found himself navigating between U.S. pressure to carry out Israel’s commitments under the Oslo Accords and domestic right-wing pressure against handing over more West Bank territory.

He ended up pleasing no one. His territorial concessions in the Hebron agreement of 1997 and the Wye River agreement of 1998 antagonized the right, while his general intransigence and perceived arrogance alienated the Clinton administration.

A secret bid for peace with Syria conducted by Netanyahu’s close friend, the U.S. cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, also failed. Plagued by petty financial scandals and perceived political ineptitude, Netanyahu became extremely unpopular. He was forced to call an early election in May 1999 and was trounced by Barak by a margin of more than 12 percent.

Netanyahu announced his temporary retirement from politics, handing the Likud leadership to Ariel Sharon. He returned briefly in December 2000, only to pull out of a leadership race with Sharon over a decision to confine the coming general election to a vote for prime minister and not for a new Knesset. Sharon won that election against Barak and made Netanyahu foreign minister.

In 2003, after winning a second election, Sharon appointed Netanyahu to the Finance Ministry. With the second Palestinian intifada still raging and the economy in deep trouble, Netanyahu introduced budget reforms. Though the package included steep welfare cuts, the moves ultimately were credited with helping trigger the period of strong economic growth Israel experienced through late 2008.

His success as finance minister, however, was tempered by his opposition to Sharon’s central political plan: full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and dismantlement of the Jewish settlements there. After an attempt to lead a party putsch against Sharon failed, Netanyahu resigned in August 2005 over the planned Gaza disengagement.

In November, when Sharon left Likud to found the more centrist Kadima Party, Netanyahu again became party leader. With him at the helm, the Likud won only 12 seats compared with Kadima’s 29 in the 2006 election.

Soon, though, several factors helped Netanyahu and the Likud rebound dramatically. In January 2007, Ehud Olmert took over from Sharon after a massive stroke left the prime minister comatose. Olmert’s popularity sank as Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 went badly and corruption probes against him mounted. In addition, the persistent rocket fire on Israelis from Hamas-controlled Gaza seemed to bear out Netanyahu’s claim that pulling out of Gaza had been a major blunder.

Netanyahu has ridden the Israeli public’s disaffection with the left-wing’s peacemaking efforts and Kadima’s failed efforts at unilateral withdrawal. But a party to the right of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, benefited even more in recent weeks, as its support rose while Likud’s poll numbers stayed flat.

In the end, Likud scored 27 seats, the biggest gain in the Knesset from the last election, in 2006, but less than projected two months ago.Yisrael Beiteinu won 15 seats, and Kadima lost a single seat, dropping to 28 but still beating out any other single party.

Once the dust clears and it becomes clear who is prime minister and with what coalition, the real work will begin: dealing with the threat of Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, and managing the economy at a time of global economic dysfunction.

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