JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday takes the title of being Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.
But while Ben-Gurion is lionized at home as the pragmatic statesman who navigated the country through its formative years, Netanyahu’s legacy will no doubt remain more divisive.
To his passionate supporters, Netanyahu, known fondly by his nickname, “Bibi,” is an unrivaled world leader with cultlike status. They credit him with expanding Israel’s international alliances, helping foster its thriving high-tech industries and remaining a steady hand on security. For his fans, the allegations of corruption and impropriety that have plagued him are an underhanded attempt by his left-wing rivals to unseat him, as they have failed to do so at the ballot box.
To his detractors, though, his deeply divisive politics have put Israel further from peace with the Palestinians. He has pandered to the far right and the religiously conservative at home while getting cozy with autocrats abroad. He is accused of pursing domestic policies that have alienated Israeli Arabs and eroded democratic institutions.
What few disagree on, though, is that he is a shrewd political operator with the ability to keep bouncing back. That reputation took a dent earlier this year. After his party narrowly won the largest minority in Israel’s April 9 general election, he failed to bring together his traditional right-wing block to form a new government.
Israel is going to the polls again. While Netanyahu’s political future remains uncertain, he’s navigated tumult in the past. Here’s a look back through the archives at his road so far.
It was the death of Netanyahu’s older brother Yonatan that biographers point to as a pivotal moment in shaping the future prime minister’s path to leadership. Known as “Yoni,” he was killed while commanding a rescue operation for 106 Israeli hostages after their jet was hijacked by a Palestinian-German militant cell in 1976 to the Ugandan city of Entebbe.
Following his brother’s death, Netanyahu, who was still living the United States at the time, set up an institute to study international terrorism, propelling him into the world of politics and advocacy.
In a 1978 clip on a Boston television show called “The Advocates,” a 28-year-old Ben Nitay (an Americanized version of his name that he used in his younger years) discusses his thoughts on Palestinian self-determination.
“Do the Palestinians have a right to a separate state?” he is asked. “No, I don’t think they do,” he answers, explaining that the Palestinians define themselves as part of the Arab nation, which already had 21 states. “There already exists a Palestinian state, and that is Jordan,” he said.
His work in the United States propelled him into the position of deputy chief of mission at Israel’s embassy in Washington, soon becoming a popular talking head. He was later appointed Israel’s ambassador at the United Nations before returning to Israel in 1988.
Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister to be born in Israel but had spent his formative years in the United States, first in Philadelphia and later studying at MIT. His U.S. upbringing helped make him a natural international spokesman for Israel.
“Bibi was hard to ignore,” wrote Ben Caspit in his biography of Netanyahu. “Within a short time, he had formed personal friendships with major media personalities including William Safire, George Will and Nightline’s Ted Koppel.”
In the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War, Netanyahu, then deputy foreign minister, became a mainstay on American television screens talking about the conflict.
In the following clip, news anchor Tom Brokaw, describes Netanyahu as “deputy foreign minister of the government of Israel, and one of its most effective spokesmen.”
Becoming leader of the opposition in 1993, Netanyahu built his political platform on opposition to the Oslo accords that were signed that year by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Netanyahu was blamed by some for whipping up nationalist sentiment during this period and stoking the fervent atmosphere that led to Rabin’s assassination in 1995. The most prominent incident was his speech from a balcony in central Jerusalem draped with a sign saying “Death to Arafat” as the crowd below chanted slogans against Rabin.
“Netanyahu’s conduct in those toxic months has remained the more indelible stain on his record,” Anshel Pfeffer wrote in another biography. However, he said, while the charge that he led the incitement has become “accepted truth,” he had admonished those who had called Rabin a traitor.
While many wrote of Netanyahu before the furor surrounding Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu’s anti-Oslo position was strengthened by a spate of suicide bombings in early 1996. He succeeded in painting his competitor, Shimon Peres, as weak and hopeless in achieving security for Israelis and in March was elected to his first term as Israel’s prime minister.
At 46, he was the youngest leader in Israel’s history. When asked by Israel’s Channel 2 News “how long do you wish to be prime minister,” Netanyahu responded that it should be “cast in stone” and that prime ministers should not be able to stay in office more than two terms. “If you don’t accomplish your goals in your first term, you might accomplish them in your second, but you don’t need any more time than that,” he said.
Netanyahu’s political life, including his four terms in office, has been marred by scandals and controversy. In 1993, he dramatically admitted to an extramarital affair on live television after a reported blackmail threat. Above is the footage, dug out by the makers of the documentary “King Bibi.”
Just a year into his first term, in 1997, he was the first Israeli prime minister to become the subject of a criminal investigation over accusations that he attempted to replace the attorney general to benefit one of his political allies.
Accusations of impropriety are still dogging him. In February, Israel’s attorney general recommended indicting Netanyahu pending a hearing in three cases involving fraud, bribery and breach of trust, charges he vehemently denies.
While the scandals have been consistent, Netanyahu’s statements on the Palestinian issue have been less so. While as a young man, he said he was against a two-state solution, he began his tenure with a hesitant handshake with Arafat and at points indicated he supported an independent Palestinian state.
He did that most prominently at a landmark speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009. In that talk, Netanyahu said he supported a demilitarized Palestinian state and talked about starting “negotiations immediately without preconditions,” setting out a “vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect.”
However, recently, in contradiction to his words at Bar-Ilan, he has promised to annex parts of the West Bank that Palestinians want to be incorporated into their future state.
His comments on Israel’s Arab population have also drawn criticism, including a last-ditch attempt to get his supporters out to the voting stations in the 2015 elections, when polls showed he was slipping.
It was also that election that brought Israelis the “Bibisitter.”
On the international stage, the Iran threat is his more favored talking point, speaking out against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in successive speeches at the United Nations.
He also bypassed President Barack Obama to travel to Washington to speak directly with a joint session of Congress to tell the Americans that it was a very bad deal. It was not the first time he expressed his views directly to Congress, giving testimony in 2002 in favor of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and telling U.S. lawmakers: “There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking, is working, is advancing towards to the development of nuclear weapons.”
He credited his efforts with influencing President Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year. While his relationship with Obama was tense, he appears to have found an affinity with Trump, who in 2017 decided to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, upending decades of U.S. foreign policy.
Just weeks before Israel’s April 9 election, Trump, in what some analysts saw as an election gift to Netanyahu, declared U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
While his previous victories allowed Netanyahu to go from strength to strength, it is the most recent election that could be his downfall. Following the April election, despite his political prowess, Netanyahu was unable to form a government. Rejecting political precedent, he has dragged the country to a second election, and it is unclear whether he can survive for much longer.
But those who have worked with him say that he has an undying self-belief that means it’s unlikely he’ll step aside until he absolutely needs to do so.
An earlier version of this article misquoted a banner that hung from a balcony from which Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech in 1995. It read “Death to Arafat,” not “Death to Arabs.”