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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 11:53 GMT
Profile: Binyamin Netanyahu
netanyahu and al gore
Mr Netanyahu has exasperated US allies such as Vice-President Al Gore
By Gerald Butt

Binyamin Netanyahu's arrival in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem in 1996 represented a major turning point in Israeli politics.

He succeeded Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin who, like the prime ministers who preceded them, were drawn from the old school of Israeli politicians and those who had witnessed and fought for the creation of the Jewish state. Most held views that were left of centre.

By contrast, Mr Netanyahu was not born until October 1949, a year-and-a-half after the creation of Israel. To his supporters in the 1996 elections he came across as young, handsome, energetic, articulate in English and a master of how to handle the Western media. In short, a man of the age.

Demonstrators against Har Homa
Anti-settlement demonstrators
Above all, Mr Netanyahu sat firmly and unequivocally on the right of Israeli politics.

While Peres and Rabin had come to the conclusion that Israel should hand back land to the Arabs as means of winning security, Netanyahu's view was that security was paramount and land was necessary to bolster security.

Mr Netanyahu said he would never compromise on this issue. But under American pressure he did, alienating his supporters on the right. But at the same time, he did not bend sufficiently to keep the support of those in Israel who favoured a land-for-peace deal with the Arabs.

On several occasions during his time in power Netanyahu had to fight to save his political life and to stop indiscretions in his personal life wrecking his public ambitions. He has proved himself a tough and able fighter.

But, his critics say, a more seasoned politician could have avoided many of the difficulties in the first place.

Fast track to power

Netanyahu's inexperience reflected his fast rise to power and his long sojourns away from the ruthless and rowdy world of Israeli politics.

When Netanyahu was a teenager, his family moved to the United States where he completed his education. Back in Israel he spent five distinguished years in the army, serving as a captain in an elite commando unit.

His brother, Jonathan, became a posthumous hero of the Jewish state when he was killed leading a raid against a hijacked airliner in Entebbe in 1976.

Out of the military, Binyamin Netanyahu returned to the United States, taking courses at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Albright greeting Netanyahu
Madeleine Albright urges a settlement
In 1981 he secured a post in the Israeli embassy in Washington where his friend Moshe Arens was ambassador.

Overnight, Netanyahu's public life was launched. Known by his nickname Bibi, he became a familiar face on American television and an effective advocate of the Israeli cause.

Netanyahu was equally successful in this respect while serving as Israel's ambassador at the United Nations.

Only in 1988, when he returned to Israel, did he become involved in domestic politics, winning a seat in the Knesset and becoming deputy foreign minister.

Later, as Palestinian violence undermined the Oslo accords favoured by Rabin and Peres, Netanyahu knew that the national mood was right for his no-nonsense, uncompromising brand of politics.

Few observers doubt that Netanyahu is learning from his mistakes and will remain a prominent figure on the Israeli stage for many years to come.

Gerald Butt is senior editor of Middle East Economic Survey (MEES)


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