In this month’s Newsmaker, Alasdair Soussi profiles the embattled Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.


Addressing the Munich Security Conference last month, Israel’s divisive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brandished what he said was a fragment of an Iranian drone shot down in Israeli airspace. Holding the splintered, charred-looking shard aloft, the right-wing leader aimed his ire at Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“Mr Zarif, do you recognise this? You should — it’s yours. You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran: do not test Israel’s resolve.”

It was a typical piece of showmanship from the long-serving Israeli premier. Israel had claimed that the drone was downed after it had entered the nation from Syria, with Netanyahu adding: “No doubt Mr Zarif will brazenly deny Iran’s involvement in Syria. He lies with eloquence.”

Zarif, who also spoke at the Munich conference, did indeed deny Netanyahu’s allegations — calling his stunt “a cartoonish circus”. But lying with eloquence is something that many staunch critics of the Israeli leader have also levelled at the man himself.

Netanyahu has long withstood attacks on his character and trustworthiness from his opponents – but things got serious last month when Israeli police recommended that he be indicted on charges of bribery. The allegations are stark – and include accepting bribes worth some $300,000 from rich businessmen looking for government patronage.


Netanyahu has long withstood attacks on his character and trustworthiness from his opponents — but things got serious last month when Israeli police recommended that he be indicted on charges of bribery.

The 68-year-old soon found himself in more hot-water when Israeli media reported that Shlomo Filber, one of Netanyahu’s closest associates (and once regarded as the Prime Minister’s right-hand man), had agreed to incriminate him in allegations of corruption as a state witness.

‘Bibi’, the popular Israel-wide nickname of Benjamin Netanyahu, posted a social media video as he sought to publicly exonerate himself from these latest developments.

“What’s happening in the last few days is the system going crazy. Scandal. Two false hallucinatory claims are brought up, in the framework of a witch hunt against me and my family that has been going on for years.”


An early family picture. Benjamin Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in Jerusalem. His high school years were spent in the United States where his father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, taught and conducted historical research. Image: netanyahu.org

The embattled leader of the Jewish State was born in October 1949 in Tel Aviv to scholarly parents. His fluent English with a noticeable American accent can be traced to his time in the US where, between 1956 and 1958 and again from 1963 to 1967, he lived with his family in Philadelphia.

Netanyahu returned to Israel at the age of 18 and joined the army. He rose to the rank of captain in an elite commando unit of the Israel Defence Forces, the Sayeret Matkal. He was twice wounded in combat and took part in notable campaigns, including the October 1973 Yom Kippur War — which pitted a coalition of Arab states against Israel.

His time in the Israeli military over, Netanyahu turned his attentions towards academia when he completed his higher education at America’s esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“He did superbly,” recalled professor Groisser, a Netanyahu faculty advisor at MIT. “He was very bright. Organised. Strong. Powerful. He knew what he wanted to do and how to get it done. He’s not the flippant, superficial person I keep reading about in the newspapers. He was organised and committed.”

The Israeli raid on a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, saw his older brother, Yonatan, killed in his role as a commander. This led Netanyahu to establish an anti-terrorism institute in his sibling’s memory.


By the early 1980s, Netanyahu was a man in a hurry — and his multi-disciplinary nature put him on a course towards politics and diplomacy.

By the early 1980s, Netanyahu was a man in a hurry — and his multi-disciplinary nature put him on a course towards politics and diplomacy. In 1982, he became Israel’s deputy chief of mission in Washington. And just two years later, he was made Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York. Netanyahu appeared destined to make an impact in Israel itself — and in 1988 he secured a seat in the Knesset (parliament) as a member of the Likud party. He also assumed the role of deputy Foreign Minister.

His first stint as Israeli Prime Minister came in 1996 when he became the country’s youngest leader, and the first to be born in the State of Israel after its foundation in 1948. His tenure was not a smooth one, however. He signed the Wye River Accords land-for-security deal in 1998 with Palestinian National Authority President, Yasser Arafat. Political colleagues who believed that Netanyahu had promised to take a robust line with the Palestinians were not amused by the move – or his decision to hand over most of Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, to Palestinian control. Netanyahu’s coalition government hit the rocks. He lost office in 1999 to Labour leader, Ehud Barak.


Benjamin Netanyahu biography: 

21 October, 1949: born in Tel Aviv – 1967-73: serves in the commandos – 1984: secures ambassadorship to the United Nations – 1988: enters parliament – 1996: becomes Prime Minister for the first time – 1999: loses election to Ehud Barak – 2002-03: serves as Foreign Minister – 2003-05: appointed Finance Minister but steps down over Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza – 2009: returns as premier and wins subsequent terms – 13 February 2018: police recommend that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of bribery.


He returned to government in 2001 under the premiership of Ariel Sharon, who took the helm of Likud after Netanyahu’s defeat. The portfolios of Foreign Minister and then Finance Minister came his way — as did the leadership (once more) of Likud when Sharon, who would soon suffer a massive stroke, left to form his own party, Kadima, in 2005. Four years later, he secured the post of Prime Minister once again, a position which (so far) he has not relinquished.

But the choppy waters of Israeli, Middle Eastern, and global politics have buffeted the three-times married Netanyahu with alacrity.

He frequently clashed with Barack Obama during the US President’s two terms in office. Sure, America remained Israel’s greatest ally and protector — but as for advancing a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu was not prepared to meet Obama’s demands for Israeli concessions.


President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Oval Office, 18 May, 2009. The two men had a difficult relationship. Image: White House/Pete Souza [CC]

As Neill Lochery wrote in POLITICO Magazine in February last year: “Netanyahu’s refusal to accept Obama’s position meant, in reality, the end of serious attempts by the Americans to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Indeed — in what was also surely a nod to Netanyahu’s standing among many other world leaders — the nadir in the relationship between the two men came at the 2011 G-20 Summit in France. Here, a sensitive discussion between the American President and then-French leader Nicolas Sarkozy was inadvertently aired on an open microphone.

“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy told Obama, both men seemingly unaware of their public faux pas. “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day,” Obama retorted.


“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy told Obama, both men seemingly unaware of their public faux pas. “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day,” Obama retorted.

Netanyahu has called the Middle East a “tough neighbourhood”. In 2012 and 2014, he ordered a major offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza (which, following Israeli disengagement from the territory in 2005, continues to be subject to a blockade) in response, he insisted, to rocket attacks. The bloody 2014 Israeli offensive lasted 50 days and left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians. In stark contrast, 67 soldiers and six civilians were killed on the Israeli side.

The father-of-three positively welcomed the election of US President Donald Trump. Like Trump, Netanyahu despised the 2015 US-led agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme – a signature foreign policy success of the Obama administration. And the Israeli leader was overjoyed when Trump formally recognised the disputed city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, despite global condemnation of the move. The US plans to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May, to coincide with the state’s 70th birthday.

But Netanyahu’s fate as Israeli leader lies closer to home. While the country’s attorney general ponders whether to act on the police recommendations and press charges against Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister remains defiant against those calling for him to go. With the scandal also embroiling his wife, Sara, Netanyahu is a man fighting on all fronts. And just as he enjoys hitting out at the likes of Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians, so he has appeared to revel in deflecting the personal accusations that could well consume him.


Alasdair Soussi is an internationally published freelance journalist, currently based in Glasgow, who has worked across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. He is on Twitter at: @AlasdairSoussi  To read more about Alasdair’s work, go to: alasdairsoussi.com


Feature image: Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia, 14 May 2013. Image: kremlin.ru [CC]