Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Benjamin Netanyahu was born on 21 October 1949 in Tel Aviv to secular Jewish parents. He is Israel's 9th prime minister, has been in office from 2009 and is currently serving his 4th term in the position which he also held from 1996-1999. Netanyahu previously served as Israel's ambassador to the UN, Minister of Finance, Foreign Minister, Leader of the Opposition and is current the Chairman of the ruling Likud party.
He spent most of his teen years living in the Philadelphia area, where his father, noted Jewish historian Benzion Netanyahu, worked as a professor.
In 1967, he returned to Israel to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces' elite unit, "Sayeret Matkal," and took part in a number of military operations, including the dramatic 1972 rescue of a hijacked Sabena passenger jet. Codenamed "Operation Isotope," the rescue was led by future Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Netanyahu returned to the United States that same year and went on to receive degrees in architecture and business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Netanyahu has a wife, Sara, a child psychologist. They have two children together: Yair and Avner. Netanyahu also has a daughter, Noa, from a previous marriage that ended in 1978. The prime minister has written and edited several books, many of which are on the subject of terrorism: Self-Portrait of a Hero: The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu (1963-76); International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (1979); Terrorism: How the West Can Win (1987); A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World (1992); Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic; and International Terrorism (1996).
On March 31, 2009, Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister for the second time, punctuating his victory by establishing a national unity government and calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. In his famous June 2009 address to Bar-Ilan University, he said, "I told President Obama in Washington, if we get a guarantee of demilitarization, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state."
However, Netanyahu found himself at odds with the United States in November 2013. He objected to the deal reached between the U.S. and Iran over the latter's nuclear program, with terms that included the reduction or suspension of efforts to enrich uranium in exchange for a loosening of existing sanctions. According to CNN, Netanyahu blasted the deal as "a historic mistake," adding that "sanctions that took years to put in place are going to be eased."
In early March 2015, two weeks before his country's elections, Netanyahu addressed a highly partisan U.S. Congress to further critique America's policy on Iran's nuclear program. President Obama continued to defend the plan, with the two leaders having notably different stances on what the end goal for Iran's weapons capabilities should be.
On December 6, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his administration was formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that was criticized by the Palestinian Authority and most member states of the U.N. but praised by Israeli leaders. "The Jewish people and the Jewish state will be forever grateful," said Netanyahu in a video, calling the decision "courageous and just."
Seemingly emboldened by the support, the Israeli Parliament in early January 2018 enacted a new law that required a supermajority vote for the ratification of any peace deal that included ceding part of Jersusalem. Around the same time, the Likud Central Committee produced a unanimous but nonbinding vote to support "free construction and application of Israeli law and sovereignty in all liberated areas of settlement" in the West Bank, effectively calling for the annexation of Israeli settlements on contested land under military jurisdiction.
In January 2020, Netanyahu appeared alongside Trump at the White House in Washington, D.C., as the U.S. president proposed a two-state solution which allowed for Israel's annexation of its West Bank settlements and the creation of a Palestinian capital in East Jersusalem. Netanyahu called the plan "a vision of peace, which is historic."
On March 3rd, 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu took a major gamble. Two weeks removed from Israel’s election day, sagging polls showed the prime minister narrowly behind the opposition Zionist Union. For the first time in a long while, it seriously looked like Netanyahu might lose—which made his presence in a foreign country, an ostensible break from the campaign trail, all the riskier.
That day, late in the morning, Netanyahu became only the second foreigner to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress three times—the other being Sir Winston Churchill. But unlike Churchill, Netanyahu arrived for this third speech without an invitation from the sitting president and fully intending to denounce the administration’s signature foreign policy priority at the time: the Iran nuclear deal.
The entire trip was something of a diplomatic slap in the face. President Barack Obama pointedly did not meet with Netanyahu during his March 2015 stay in Washington. House Speaker John Boehner had invited the prime minister to speak before Congress without first informing the White House, and Netanyahu had accepted the invitation in the same manner. His address before the House chamber had one major theme—branding the product of the Obama-backed nuclear negotiations with Iran as a “very bad deal”—and one clear goal: giving his own reelection efforts a jump-start in the closing weeks of the election.
Barack Obama said in 2012 that dealing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was like dealing with his rivals in the Republican Party, and that Netanyahu was dishonest toward his administration, former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes says in his new book.
As Obama began his presidency, his team expected to pressure Israel into making major concessions that would speed up the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Netanyahu, however, had other ideas.
The two leaders met at the White House on May 19, 2009, after the new administration sent its customary invitation to the Israeli prime minister. During the course of the meeting, Obama focused his attention on Israel and Palestine, arguing that continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank was unacceptable. He wanted Netanyahu to commit to the two-state solution, but the prime minister resisted making any such declaration in Washington. For Netanyahu, the meeting with Obama was all about Iran and making the case for military action against it sooner rather than later.
Obama spoke at Cairo University and as the Cairo speech was broadcast live across the globe, Netanyahu listened intently as Obama expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and condemned Israel in strikingly harsh terms. “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s,” he said. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
On June 14, 10 days after Obama spoke at Cairo University, Netanyahu took the stage at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Predictably, the order of the subjects in Netanyahu’s speech was the opposite of Obama’s, reflecting their different political agendas. Starting with Iran, Netanyahu talked about the country’s nuclear program in the troubling context of “the encounter between extremist Islam and nuclear weapons,” which he called the “greatest danger to Israel, to the Middle East, and to all of humanity.” He quickly moved on to a brief discussion of the challenges the global economic crisis caused for Israelis, followed by a call for Arab states to help foster a stable regional peace.
Only then did he turn to the subject most people were waiting to hear about: the resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. From their first meeting, Netanyahu was perceptive enough to understand that that Obama saw maintaining the status quo on the Palestinian peace process as unacceptable. His speech was crafted with that reality in mind. After a preamble about the impact of the conflict on people’s lives, including a reference to the loss of his own brother, an Israeli commando who was killed decades earlier in a hostage-rescue raid against Palestinian and German terrorists, the prime minister came to his main point: He was accepting the two-state solution.
The rapid souring of the Arab Spring, and its takeover by radical elements, appeared to illustrate that Netanyahu’s caution had been well founded. His plan for effectively trying to sit out the Arab Spring before making any potential concessions toward the Arabs also resonated well among many Israelis, who were focused on security rather than peace.
At a press conference, sitting with Obama, the prime minister rebuked the president for trying to create a peace that was not based on political realities. “I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities,” Netanyahu said. “The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines, because these lines are indefensible.” Obama sat, stone-faced. Netanyahu’s refusal to accept Obama’s position meant, in reality, the end of serious attempts by the Americans to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Netanyahu, defeat at Obama’s hands over Iran was compensated for by a victory in the other divisive split in U.S.–Israeli relations: the thorny issue of the Palestinian peace process. Although reluctant to admit it publicly, Netanyahu prioritized the Palestinian problem over the Iranian one, and in this area, he was far more successful in resisting pressure—indeed, he used his position on the one issue as leverage when it came to the other. The possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran became a means of getting the U.S. to take the heat off Israel on the Palestinian front. Netanyahu outmaneuvered Obama. But Netanyahu’s success wasn’t entirely a product of his own achievement—much of it was the result of Obama’s self-inflicted damage.
The right to exist is said to be an attribute of nations. According to an essay by the nineteenth-century French philosopher Ernest Renan, a state has the right to exist when individuals are willing to sacrifice their own interests for the community it represents. Unlike self-determination, the right to exist is an attribute of states rather than of peoples. It is not a right recognized in international law. The phrase has featured prominently in the Arab–Israeli conflict since the 1950s.
In the quarter century since Israelis and Palestinians first started negotiating under US auspices in 1991, there has been no shortage of explanations for why each particular round of talks failed. Each of these rounds of diplomacy began with vows to succeed where predecessors had failed. Each included affirmations of the urgency of peace or warnings of the closing window, perhaps even the last chance, for a two-state solution. Each ended with a list of tactical mistakes and unforeseen developments that resulted in failure.
The Palestinians argue, with good reason, that the creation of a Jewish state in an Arab land was an injustice to them. Most liberal Zionists acknowledge this reality. However, the founding fathers of Israel argued that leaving the Jews homeless would also be an injustice — especially in the context of the widespread anti-Semitism that prevailed in the 1940s.
Indeed, it was impossible to know back then that anti-Semitism would recede so much in the following decades. Hence, wanting to create a Jewish state not only to allow the Jews to become politically independent, but above all, to protect them against anti-Semitism, was not a whim. This is why both Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann argued that dividing the land was a lesser evil.