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Israel elections Monday, 17 May, 1999, 20:51 GMT 21:51 UK
Netanyahu's bumpy ride
Binyamin Netanyahu
Mr Barak had the last laugh
By Gerald Butt

After only three years in office the wonder kid Binyamin Netanyahu has been forced out of government after elections he called himself - 17 months early.

Israel Elections Special Report
But in his brief tenure, Mr Netanyahu, known as Bibi to friends and enemies alike, has had an exciting ride. He survived rather than prospered, and until the end showed signs of the political naivety that marked his early days in office.

Propelled into the prime minister's office in 1996 by the narrowest of margins, the election of Mr Netanyahu represented a major turning point in Israeli politics.

He succeeded Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin who like the prime ministers before them, were drawn from the old school of Israeli politicians - 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 at the Western media. In short, a man of the age.

With Arafat at the Wye negotiations
With Arafat , King Hussein at the Wye negotiations
Above all, Mr Netanyahu sat firmly and unequivocally on the right of Israeli politics. Mr Peres and Rabin had supported the return of some land to the Arabs as means of winning security.

Mr Netanyahu's view was that security was paramount - and land was necessary to bolster security.

He vowed that he would never compromise on this issue. But under American pressure he did just this - alienating his supporters.

As the elections approached, he tried to reingratiate himself with right-wingers, authorising the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The result was mixed. Settlers cheered but the decision caused a further strain in Israeli-US relations.

On the domestic front, too, Mr Netanyahu faced a series of crises.

On several occasions he has 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.

Early years

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

As a young soldier
Netanyahu as a young soldier
When he 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, Uganda, in 1976).

Out of the military, Binyamin Netanyahu returned to the United States, taking courses at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1981 he secured a post in the Israeli embassy in Washington where his friend, Moshe Arens, was ambassador.

Overnight, Mr 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.

Mr 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 Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Mr Netanyahu knew that the national mood was right for his no-nonsense, uncompromising brand of politics.

Perhaps Mr Netanyahu's biggest mistake was to alienate a number of prominent people who were once his allies. As a result, the prime minister went to the polls facing challenges from the right as well as the centre and the left.

The challenge worked. Mr Barak won this election by 14.5% according to first exit polls, a victory many are calling the greatest landslide in Israeli political history.


Gerald Butt is a former BBC Jerusalem correspondent and is editor of Al-Mushahid Assiyasi, the BBC Arabic magazine.

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Middle East Correspondent Jim Muir remembers Mr Netanyahu's troubled times
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