IN THE NEWS: Political streetfighter who gets his retaliation in first

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The Independent Online
NOBODY IS quicker at spotting a tactical advantage. "Get your retaliation in first", runs the old Ulster political adage of which Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, would approve, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem.

This explains the Israeli leader's explosive response when Robin Cook shook the hand of a well-known Palestinian during a visit to the Israeli settlement at Har Homa, called by Palestinians Jebel Abu Ghneim, in south- east Jerusalem. He said Britain had broken its promise that "there would be no contact with Palestinians in relation to that place".

The incident was typical. First of all, his claim was fairly demonstrably untrue. David Manning, the British ambassador, patiently explained that he had reached no prior agreement with Israel on who Mr Cook should shake hands with.

But the Israeli leader's purpose in manufacturing a confrontation with Mr Cook was clear. The US is on the verge of launching an initiative to revive the peace process. By opening fire on Mr Cook, who spoke warmly of the coming US proposals, Mr Netanyahu was sending a message that he will resist American pressure for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

It is by such manoeuvres that Mr Netanyahu made himself first leader of the Israeli right and then Prime Minister of Israel in 1996. But he is more than an able tactician. He has a relentless will to win.

"That is what counts," said Nahum Barnea, an Israeli columnist, "the hunger. The willingness to wage war, get dirty, to stick to the goals wholeheartedly".

Born in Israel in 1949, Mr Netanyahu comes from a family on the far right. His father Bentzion Netanyahu, a historian of the Spanish Inquisition, went into self-imposed exile in the US because he believed his views prevented him getting an appropriate academic job. From school in Philadelphia, and later Harvard University, Benjamin returned to Israel for his military service, during which he became a commando. The impetus for his political career came when his brother Jonathan was killed in the Entebbe raid in 1976, rescuing hostages from a hijacked plane.

After a brief stint marketing furniture, Mr Netanyahu was sent to the Israeli embassy in Washington. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 he began to show his expertise as a propagandist. Promoted to be Israeli ambassador to the UN, he appeared on American television so often that a poll showed many Americans thought he was their own UN representative.

After returning to Israel he fought a fierce campaign to become leader of the right-wing Likud Party in 1993. Three years later he survived what might have been the death blow to any other politician. He had whipped up opposition to the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians by attacks on Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister. When Mr Rabin was assassinated in 1995 his widow Leah refused to shake hands with Mr Netanyahu.

A quick election after the assassination might have finished him. Instead, his opponents waited. In 1996 he became Prime Minister by a few thousand votes. His election provoked a debate in Israel and across the world about his political character. Was he an ideologue or a pragmatist? The answer, which should have been evident from his writings, is that he is an ideological man of great practical intelligence and flexibility.

Ostensibly, he supports the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords. In practice he has largely refused to implement them. He is always prepared to talk while Israeli settlements continue to be established in the West Bank. He believes, perhaps rightly, that if he shows himself combative enough he can strangle any peace initiative in its cradle. Hence his reaction to Mr Cook's handshake at Har Homa.

Cook's tour, page 14


Sara, Mr Netanyahu's third wife (below), has had a lot to put up with. In 1993, during his election campaign for the leadership of the Likud Party, her husband appeared on TV to confess to adultery and claim his political opponents were threatening to blackmail him by releasing a "hot video" showing him in a compromising position with his girlfriend. Sara achieved notoriety by firing nannies, one of whom was dismissed for burning the soup.


The assassination of Yitzak Rabin in 1995 was the critical moment for Mr Netanyahu and modern Israel. If Mr. Rabin's successor had called an election immediately, he would have won. Instead, he waited. Palestinian bombs exploded on buses. Mr Netanyahu united the disparate forces of the Right, from newly-arrived Russian immigrants to the black-coated ultra- Orthodox. He was also favoured by his opponent's visible contempt for his abilities. On election night he won by a few thousand votes.


At one time, President Clinton was said to be refusing to take calls from the Israeli Prime Minister. Mr Netanyahu said the White House thought there were two Saddam Husseins in the Middle East: one in Iraq and the other, himself, in Israel. But he has strong support in the US media and in the US Jewish community. He has successfully cultivated leaders of the Republican majority in Congress. He believes, probably rightly, that he can thwart any US effort aimed at forcing him to implement the Oslo accords with the Palestinians.