Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's unseated long-term leader

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Netanyahu was Israel's longest serving leader - and it's first to go on trial

For many years, to his supporters and opponents alike, Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be politically invincible. Israel's longest-serving leader won a record four elections and held office five times - more than any other prime minister in the country's 73-year history. In the end, it took an unprecedented coalition of parties whose only common goal was to oust him to finally cast him out.

Mr Netanyahu's unrivalled success in polls owed much to the image he cultivated as the person who could best keep Israel safe from hostile forces in the Middle East.

He took a hard line towards the Palestinians, putting security concerns at the top of any talk of peace, and long warned of existential danger to Israel from Iran.

His final years though were dogged by his criminal trial for alleged corruption, which fuelled criticism of his determination to stay on power, and street protests calling for him to go.

Brother's legacy

Benjamin Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949. In 1963 his family moved to the US when his father Benzion, a prominent historian and Zionist activist, was offered an academic post.

At the age of 18, he returned to Israel, where he spent five distinguished years in the army, serving as a captain in an elite commando unit, the Sayeret Matkal. He took part in a raid on Beirut's airport in 1968 and fought in the 1973 Middle East war.

After his military service, Mr Netanyahu went back to the US, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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Mr Netanyahu (R) was a captain of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit

In 1976, Mr Netanyahu's brother, Jonathan, was killed leading a raid to rescue hostages from a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda. His death had a profound impact on the Netanyahu family, and his name became legendary in Israel.

Mr Netanyahu set up an anti-terrorism institute in his brother's memory and in 1982 became Israel's deputy chief of mission in Washington.

Overnight, Mr Netanyahu's public life was launched. An articulate English speaker with a distinctive American accent, he became a familiar face on US television and an effective advocate for Israel.

He was appointed Israel's permanent representative at the UN in New York in 1984.

Rise to power

Only in 1988, when Mr Netanyahu returned to Israel, did he become involved in domestic politics, winning a seat for the Likud party in the Knesset (parliament) and becoming deputy foreign minister.

He later became party chairman, and in 1996, Israel's first directly elected prime minister after an early election following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

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Mr Netanyahu had a loyal political base in the Likud party

Mr Netanyahu was also Israel's youngest leader and the first to be born after the state was founded in 1948.

Despite having fiercely criticised the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu signed a deal handing over 80% of Hebron to Palestinian Authority control and agreed to further withdrawals from the occupied West Bank, to much opprobrium from the right.

He lost office in 1999 after he called elections 17 months early, defeated by Labour leader Ehud Barak, Mr Netanyahu's former commander.

Political revival

Mr Netanyahu stepped down as Likud leader and was succeeded by Ariel Sharon.

After Mr Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, Mr Netanyahu returned to government, first as foreign minister and then as finance minister. In 2005, he resigned in protest at the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip.

His chance came again in 2005, when Mr Sharon - just before a massive stroke that left him in a coma - split from Likud and set up a new centrist party, Kadima.

Life and times

  • 1949 - born in Tel Aviv
  • 1967-73 - serves as soldier commando captain
  • 1984 - becomes ambassador to UN
  • 1988 - enters Knesset and government
  • 1996 - becomes prime minister
  • 1999 - loses election
  • 2002-03 - serves as foreign minister
  • 2003-05 - serves as finance minister; resigns over withdrawal from Gaza
  • Dec 2005 - wins back leadership of Likud party
  • 2009 - returns as prime minister
  • 2013 - re-elected as prime minister
  • 2015 - wins fourth term
  • 2019 - charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust
  • 2020 - begins fifth term; goes on trial

Mr Netanyahu won the Likud leadership again and was elected prime minister for the second time in March 2009.

He agreed to an unprecedented 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, enabling peace talks with Palestinians, but negotiations collapsed in late 2010.

Although in 2009 he had publicly announced his conditional acceptance of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he later toughened his position. "A Palestinian state will not be created, not like the one people are talking about. It won't happen," he told an Israeli radio station in 2019.

Conflict in Gaza

Palestinian attacks and Israeli military action repeatedly brought Israel into confrontation in and around the Gaza Strip before and after Mr Netanyahu returned to office in 2009.

The fourth such conflict in just 12 years erupted in May 2021, putting a temporary halt to efforts by parties opposed to Mr Netanyahu to oust him following a series of inconclusive elections.

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Israel has fought four major conflicts with militants in Gaza

Although during the conflicts Israel had the support of the United States, its closest ally, relations between Mr Netanyahu and President Barack Obama were difficult.

They reached a low point when Mr Netanyahu addressed Congress in March 2015, warning against a "bad deal" arising out of US negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme. The Obama administration condemned the visit as interfering and damaging.

Trump ties

The advent of Donald Trump's presidency in 2017 led to a closer alignment between US and Israeli government policies, and within a year Mr Trump announced his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The move sparked fury across the Arab world - which supports the Palestinians' claim to the eastern half of Jerusalem occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war - but it handed Mr Netanyahu a major political and diplomatic coup.

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Netanyahu found renewed political support from the US under Donald Trump

Just over a year later, Mr Trump also recognised Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, further reversing decades of US policy and earning Mr Netanyahu's praise.

And in January 2020, Mr Netanyahu hailed Mr Trump's blueprint for peace between Israel and the Palestinians as "the opportunity of the century", though it was spurned by Palestinians as one-sided and left on the table.

Mr Netanyahu also saw eye-to-eye with Mr Trump on Iran, welcoming the president's withdrawal in 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal and reinstatement of economic sanctions.

Spectacle of trial

After 2016, Mr Netanyahu was dogged by a corruption investigation, which culminated in him being charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three separate cases in November 2019.

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After being charged in 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu railed against what he saw as an "attempted coup"

Mr Netanyahu is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to get more positive press coverage.

He denies wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a politically motivated "witch hunt" engineered by his opponents. He went on trial in May 2020, becoming the first serving prime minister to do so and defying calls by opponents to step down.

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Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a rare unity government to tackle the coronavirus crisis

Even under the cloud of criminal allegations, Mr Netanyahu survived three deadlocked general elections in less than a year and won a record fifth term, agreeing to share power with political rival Benny Gantz in a rare government of national unity established to deal with the coronavirus emergency.

Its collapse after only eight months triggered a fourth election in two years. Although the Likud won the most seats, opposition among other right-wing parties to Mr Netanyahu's continuation as prime minister meant he could not secure a majority.

Instead, a spectrum of parties from far left to far right, backed by Arab MPs, formed a so-called "change government" in an arrangement never-before-seen in Israel, and in June 2021 mustered enough votes in parliament to take power, finally ending Mr Netanyahu's era.