March 31, 2009 / 11:55 AM / 11 years ago

Netanyahu caps political comeback with premiership

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu was the perfect candidate for a comeback in Israel’s worried political landscape.

Israel's prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a special session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, marking the 30th anniversary of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, in Jerusalem March 30, 2009. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s nuclear designs and Israel’s economic ills contributed to a mood of pessimism that provided grist Netanyahu needed to double his right-wing Likud’s parliamentary representation in a February election.

Netanyahu, returning as prime minister a decade after he was voted out of the post, may still go by his childhood nickname, Bibi, but the U.S.-raised MIT graduate has never been accused of taking anything but a somber view of Israel’s world.

Witness this exchange on U.S. television some years ago:

“Are you a happy camper?” an interviewer asked Netanyahu.

The man Israelis hail as a master of the soundbite, and of the English language, was silent, then confessed he did not know the term, which to Americans means a sense of contentment.

The son of a Zionist historian, Netanyahu, 59, has cast his return to power as a vindication of the Likud party’s long view that ceding occupied Arab land unilaterally had backfired by encouraging Islamist foes.

He is now promoting his plan for an “economic peace” that shifts the focus away from statehood.

That change of direction could put his right-leaning government on a collision course with U.S. President Barack Obama, who has reaffirmed Washington’s support for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu has shied away from embracing that U.S.-backed goal and has said any Palestinian entity must have limited powers of sovereignty and no military.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

A former finance minister who had championed welfare cuts and free-market practices, Netanyahu has also presented himself as the man to keep Israel afloat above swelling global budget crises.

He became the youngest Israeli prime minister in 1996, defeating then center-left Labor leader Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president, whose interim Palestinian peace deals had been all but blown away by a wave of Hamas suicide bombings.

Despite publicly reviling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu eventually handed him most of the divided city of Hebron in 1997, departing from the Likud’s refusal to give up biblical West Bank territory.

But when Netanyahu broke ground for the Jewish West Bank settlement of Har Homa near Jerusalem, he plunged U.S.-sponsored peacemaking into 19 months of crisis. That culminated in Netanyahu being toppled by Labor’s Ehud Barak.

Netanyahu’s last cabinet portfolio was as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s Likud-led government, a post in which he won praise from business leaders for free-market reforms.

He quit in protest shortly before the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005, which prompted a schism in which Sharon bolted to form the centrist Kadima party.

Netanyahu said at the time the Gaza Strip would be taken over by Hamas Islamists and that Israel would come under rocket fire from the territory — predictions that came true.

A former military commando, Netanyahu is a self-styled terrorism expert, writing books and forming a think-tank after his elder brother Yoni was killed leading the raid to release Israeli hostages held at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976.

He and his third wife, Sara, have two teenage sons. He has a daughter from a previous marriage.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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