Benjamin Netanyahu, the fiery 'king' of Israel who sowed seeds of his own downfall

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Benjamin Netanyahu - no longer prime minister for the first time in 12 years - EMMANUEL DUNAND /AFP
Benjamin Netanyahu - no longer prime minister for the first time in 12 years - EMMANUEL DUNAND /AFP

After more than a decade in power and a string of scandals that would make even the most hardened political operator blush, Israel’s longest serving prime minister has been toppled by a crisis of his own making.

Benjamin Netanyahu, a juggernaut of right-wing politics, was ousted on Sunday by a unity government that secured its majority with help from an Arab party - the minority group that Mr Netanyahu has demonised for decades for political gain.

Mr Netanyahu, 71, claims he is the victim of the “greatest election fraud” in Israel's history, in a naked attempt to channel former US President Donald Trump.

But his critics say that years of broken promises, inflammatory remarks against Palestinians, ill-treatment of right-wing allies and desperate attempts to undermine confidence in Israel’s legal system have finally caught up with Mr Netanyahu.

In the end, they say, he was the architect of his own downfall.

Mr Netanyahu (R) aged 17 with a friend at the entrance to his family home in Jerusalem in 1967 - Hulton Archive 
Mr Netanyahu (R) aged 17 with a friend at the entrance to his family home in Jerusalem in 1967 - Hulton Archive
Mr Netanyahu during his army service in a special force in 1976 - AFP
Mr Netanyahu during his army service in a special force in 1976 - AFP

Born in Tel Aviv and raised in Jerusalem, a young Mr Netanyahu first came to prominence as a commander in Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s fearsome special forces unit.

The future prime minister was shot in the shoulder during a rescue mission in 1972 and also fought in the Yom Kippur war the following year.

At that time, he largely lived in the shadow of his brother, Yoni Netanyahu, a decorated Israeli soldier who would lose his life during an Israeli hostage rescue operation in 1976.

After an honourable discharge from the Israel Defence Forces, he took a job as a consultant in the United States, where he was a frequent guest on talk shows discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise during a visit to Haifa in 1996 - Hulton Archive 
Mr Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise during a visit to Haifa in 1996 - Hulton Archive
Mr Netanyahu meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during talks to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank in 1998 - AP
Mr Netanyahu meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during talks to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank in 1998 - AP

It was in those television studios that Mr Netanyahu mastered the art of “Hasbara,” a form of public diplomacy that promotes the values and security policies of the Jewish state - though it has also been described as Israeli propaganda.

The fierce debates moulded Mr Netanyahu into a formidable public speaker and no doubt prepared him for the cut and thrust of the Israeli political sphere.

After returning to Israel he was elected as Chairman of the right-wing Likud party in 1993 and then led the party to victory in 1996, when he became Israel’s youngest prime minister.

He oversaw talks to withdraw troops from the West Bank in the late '90s, talks that ultimately stalled.

An election defeat at the hands of Ehud Barak in 1999 appeared to spell the end of his political career. But, in an early sign of his tenacity, he was back at the helm of Likud within a decade and then returned to high office in 2009 with a coalition government.

This was followed by two election victories in 2013 and 2015, cementing his status as one of the most formidable leaders in the Jewish state’s history.

File image of President Donald Trump applauding Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2020 - Reuters/Reuters
File image of President Donald Trump applauding Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2020 - Reuters/Reuters
... and giving a speech at the new Israeli settlement of "Ramat Trump", or "Trump Heights" in annexed Golan Heights - JALAA MAREY /AFP
... and giving a speech at the new Israeli settlement of "Ramat Trump", or "Trump Heights" in annexed Golan Heights - JALAA MAREY /AFP

The high point in his career arguably came in November 2016, when Donald Trump won the US presidential elections.

Mr Trump, whose populist rants against the establishment were lifted straight from the Netanyahu playbook, quickly became his closest ally.

The crowning achievement of that partnership - from Israel’s perspective - was US recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in 2017.

The United States also moved its embassy to Jerusalem and helped Israel secure historic normalisation treaties with Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Those major policy changes were a hammer blow to Palestinian leaders, as it became clear that the Trump Administration would proudly and openly favour Israel for the next four years.

Washington’s substantially tougher stance on Iran, which culminated in the assassination of General Qassim Soleimani in January 2020, was mainly the result of frenetic lobbying by Mr Netanyahu.

Under Mr Netanyahu’s rule, Israel is widely believed to have expanded the fight against Iran to the seas.

In June, a suspected Israeli strike destroyed the Kharg, Iran’s largest warship. He is also believed to have ordered strikes on key nuclear facilities in Iran, including the Natanz site that was mysteriously sabotaged in April.

In his final months as prime minister, he intensified operations against Iran including another high-profile assassination, this time the regime’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Mr Netanyahu brandishing what he claimed was a piece of an Iranian drone shot down in Israeli airspace during a talk in Munich in 2018 - LENNART PREISS /AFP
Mr Netanyahu brandishing what he claimed was a piece of an Iranian drone shot down in Israeli airspace during a talk in Munich in 2018 - LENNART PREISS /AFP
Mr Netanyahu giving a talk about the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program to the UN General Assembly in 2019 - Lucas Jackson /REUTERS
Mr Netanyahu giving a talk about the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program to the UN General Assembly in 2019 - Lucas Jackson /REUTERS

Israelis often describe Mr Netanyahu as “Mr Security,” the only leader capable of protecting them from Iran and its many proxies in the region, as well as Hamas in Gaza.

This came at a heavy cost to the lives of Palestinians, however. During the 2014 Gaza war at least 1,400 Palestinian civilians died according to UN statistics, while six Israeli civilians also lost their lives. This was followed by the 2021 Gaza conflict which killed around 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Mr Netanyahu's leadership was often marred by personal scandals, including extra-marital affairs and accusations that his harsh rhetoric helped to incite the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Mr Netanyahu strongly denies that he incited the killing.

His wife, Sara Netanyahu, is an equally colourful character. She has been accused of bullying and abusing the Netanyahus' residence staff, which left one housekeeper "traumatised." In 2019, she was convicted of misusing state funds, having secured a plea bargain, following claims that she overspent £70,000 in public funds on luxury food.

Mr Netanyahu and wife Sara during a stroll along a promenade overlooking the Old City in Jerusalem - Getty Images 
Mr Netanyahu and wife Sara during a stroll along a promenade overlooking the Old City in Jerusalem - Getty Images
Mr Netanyahu placing a note in the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem - Uriel Sinai/EPA
Mr Netanyahu placing a note in the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem - Uriel Sinai/EPA

Over the years, Mr Netanyahu deployed inflammatory language against Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel with gusto, including his infamous warning in the 2015 election campaign that "the Arabs are voting in droves.”

The ruthless manoeuvre, which sought to scare floating right-wing Israeli voters, is credited with handing Mr Netanyahu his final election victory.

But it also stands as testament to a malicious and divisive streak in the prime minister which ultimately led to his downfall - in the 2021 election, Arab votes proved to be a key factor in securing the coalition against him.

The Islamist Ra'am party, led by Mansour Abbas, is now poised to become the first party representing Palestinians to join an Israeli government, rather than merely lend external support.

Mr Netanyahu reportedly made frantic efforts to persuade Mr Abbas to join his own coalition efforts. But Mr Abbas refused, having drawn the conclusion that the Likud leader could not be trusted with following through on his promises.

After being indicted on corruption and fraud charges in November 2019, Mr Netanyahu was mired in a crisis that no amount of political maneuvering could avoid.

His insistence that the trial was a political “witch-hunt,” part of a wider campaign to undermine public faith in the Israeli media and judiciary, only drove former allies such as Mr Bennett further away.

“His legal troubles contributed to his downfall, but so did alienating those closest to him,” said Dr Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and analyst. “They didn’t feel comfortable with him governing.”

Since March 2020, mass protests against Mr Netanyahu’s leadership - which dubbed him "Crime Minister" - have been held in Jerusalem on Saturday evenings, and they too weakened his credibility.

Mr Netanyahu strongly denies the charges and the trial is expected to last as long as several years. If convicted, he faces up to a decade in prison.

A protest against Mr Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem this June. The Hebrew reads: "You failed", "Israel free" and "Leave". - Ariel Schalit /AP
A protest against Mr Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem this June. The Hebrew reads: "You failed", "Israel free" and "Leave". - Ariel Schalit /AP
... and another protester dressed as Mr Netanyahu in prison from the same demonstration. - EMMANUEL DUNAND /AFP
... and another protester dressed as Mr Netanyahu in prison from the same demonstration. - EMMANUEL DUNAND /AFP

In parallel to the corruption scandal, Mr Netanyahu was bruised by four disappointing election results in March 2019, September 2019, March 2020 and March 2021.

He lost many votes to movements founded by his disillusioned former allies - Mr Bennett's Yamina party, Mr Sa'ar's New Hope and Mr Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.

After the fourth inconclusive result, it was Mr Bennett who emerged as the kingmaker and who sought to form a “unity” government.

Mr Bennett, a former settler leader and self-made millionaire, had styled himself as the only credible right-wing alternative to Mr Netanyahu, and one who was unblemished by allegations of sleaze.

In other words, it was Mr Netanyahu’s alleged misconduct which provided the platform for a motley alliance of disgruntled right-wingers, as well as left-wing and centrist parties, to unite against him.

Israelis celebrate the swearing in of a new government on June 13. The sign reads: "Game over Bibi" - a reference to a popular nickname for Mr Netanyahu - Oded Balilty /AP
Israelis celebrate the swearing in of a new government on June 13. The sign reads: "Game over Bibi" - a reference to a popular nickname for Mr Netanyahu - Oded Balilty /AP

Even as the new government takes power, Mr Netanyahu has shown no signs of giving up and is likely to fight the next prime minister from the opposition benches.

Allies of Mr Netanyahu say he is hopeful that the new, fragile coalition - which will struggle to balance conflicting demands from the left and the right - could collapse in mere weeks.

It means that Mr Netanyahu’s downfall may not prove to be the final chapter in his political career, though this depends on whether the Likud party aims to remove him as Chairman in the coming weeks.

It remains to be seen whether Israel’s new government will hold firm, as it agrees in little other than removing Mr Netanyahu from power.

But the political demise of "King Bibi" suggests that Israel has grown weary of his divisive style, and is now ready to accept the more circumspect, compromise-driven approach demanded by the unity government.

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