Netanyahu: Israel's wily darling of the right

Benjamin Netanyahu, due to be sworn in as Israel's prime minister later on Tuesday, is a wily right-winger once known as the "magician" for his ability to outwit his political rivals.

Just three years after he led Likud to its worst electoral defeat, the consummate tactician is now returning to the country's most powerful post at the head of a largely right-wing government.

Smooth-talking and ever ready with a soundbite in perfect American-accented English, the shrewd politician has managed to pull off stunning victories and also weather shocking defeats during his political career.

In 1996, he became Israel's youngest prime minister, at the age of 45, establishing a modern, television-friendly administration and earning a leading spot in the nation's right-wing pantheon by pledging there would be no peace without security.

Now 59, the former ambassador appears to have buried the humiliation of the 2006 defeat which followed the defection from Likud of political giant and former premier Ariel Sharon, who formed Kadima.

In the ensuing years "Bibi," as Netanyahu is widely known, watched his ratings climb steadily on the back of the unpopular 2006 war in Lebanon, a string of government corruption scandals and rising discontent over unabated militant rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

His popularity was not dented by the Gaza war in December and January, conducted by a Kadima-led cabinet, or by the election of US President Barack Obama who has said he is determined to pursue Middle East peace efforts "aggressively" after years of stagnation.

During his electoral campaign Netanyahu vowed to topple Hamas, calling the Islamist movement ruling Gaza "an Iranian proxy."

He also indicated peace talks should focus at this stage on improving Palestinian daily life rather than negotiating core issues such as the future status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and the borders of the Palestinians' promised state.

In 1996, his tough talk on security saw him defeat Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres for the premiership, despite the enormous wave of sympathy for Peres generated by the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, his partner in the Oslo peace accords.

During his premiership, Netanyahu put the brakes on the peace process with the Palestinians, in part by authorising a major expansion of Jewish settlements.

But he also made concessions to the Palestinians under US pressure and concluded two agreements with the late Yasser Arafat, even shaking the hand of the man he had once branded a "war criminal."

After three years as prime minister, he was defeated in 1999 by Labour party chief Ehud Barak, who campaigned under the slogan of "Anyone but Bibi."

Netanyahu also faced charges of graft and fraud over gifts received while he was in office, but he was cleared in 2000.

His third wife, former air hostess Sarah, was the butt of persistent criticism in the Israeli media during her husband's premiership and the subject of sometimes lurid tales about her alleged lavish lifestyle and mistreatment of her staff.

Born on October 21, 1949, Netanyahu was educated in the United States after his father Bentzion, a history professor, was considered so right-wing in the Labour-dominated Israel of the time that he was forced to leave.

Before attending the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he served in an elite Israeli army commando unit, took part in a number of operations and was wounded. He was discharged with the rank of captain.

He was deeply affected by the death of his elder brother Jonathan, who was killed leading the legendary 1976 Israeli commando raid on an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinians to Entebbe, Uganda.

Netanyahu then plunged into studies of terrorism, writing three books on the subject.

His career took off when he was posted to Israel's embassy in Washington and later ambassador to the United Nations, before returning to launch a political career that has also seen him hold the foreign affairs and finance portfolios.

Source: AFP

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