Jerusalem (AFP) – Facing a corruption indictment, Benjamin Netanyahu — Israel’s longest-serving prime minister — is a veteran rightwinger, former elite soldier and a close ally of US President Donald Trump.
The 70-year-old is the first premier in Israeli history to be indicted in office, accused of corruption charges that could end the veteran leader’s political career.
The burly son of a historian with the familiar grey combover and deep voice has entrenched himself at the top so firmly he has been labelled “King Bibi”, referring to his childhood nickname.
The Likud party leader prefers the title “Mr Security” and has stayed in power with a mix of divisive populism and portrayal as a world statesman, stressing his ties with foreign leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin — and especially Trump.
Netanyahu was standing next to the US leader at the White House when Trump unveiled his controversial Middle East peace plan last month.
Netanyahu said the proposal — widely seen as skewed towards Israel — was earned in part through his personal bond with Trump and claimed it can only be implemented if he is re-elected prime minister on March 2.
A hardliner on Iran and the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu has promised to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if re-elected, a pledge many regard as a play for vital rightwing votes.
That and his stated intention to annex Israeli settlements in the wider West Bank could effectively end any remaining hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu has spent several years fighting off corruption accusations.
But he was ultimately charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he received improper gifts and offered a media mogul profitable regulatory changes in exchange for positive coverage.
He denies the allegations, with his trial set to open on March 17.
– Brother’s death –
Netanyahu has spent years outlasting opponents and could do so again.
He was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, less than 18 months after Israel’s creation. Netanyahu and his wife Sara have two sons, and he has a daughter from a previous marriage.
The son of a history professor active in Israeli rightwing politics, Netanyahu grew up partly in the United States.
He attended the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and with his fluent, American-accented English would appear on television speaking forcefully in defence of Israel.
He performed his Israeli military service with an elite unit and was wounded in combat, but another family member’s service may have affected him more deeply.
In 1976, his brother Yonatan died in an Israeli commando raid to rescue hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda.
Netanyahu has called the operation “a very dramatic national experience” and “one of great personal consequence”.
– ‘Too pragmatic’ –
Israeli politics in its early years was dominated by the Labour party, but the first victory by the Likud, then led by Menachem Begin, in 1977 helped lay the groundwork for Netanyahu’s political future.
His career took off when he was posted to the Israeli embassy in Washington and later served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Aged 46, he became Israel’s youngest-ever premier in 1996, after he had risen to international attention with his multiple appearances on CNN as Israel’s deputy foreign minister after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Netanyahu was defeated three years later, but would return to power in 2009 and has remained in office ever since.
While Israel’s economy has prospered under his watch and his security credentials have shored up his rightwing base, many call his politics too divisive.
They accuse him of scare tactics and pitting Israelis against each other by castigating those who disagree.
His biographer Neill Lochery, author of “The Resistible Rise of Benjamin Netanyahu”, said: “The trouble that the world had in dealing with Netanyahu was not that he was an ideologue.”
The problem, he wrote, is rather “that he was too pragmatic, and prone to change his mind in order to curry favour with key voting groups in Israel”.