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The Man and the Issues   |   Live Chat   |   Message Board

Netanyahu: Man at the Crossroads


(CNN) -- Elected less than two years ago in the wake of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Benjamin Netanyahu is facing what is perhaps his greatest challenge of his political career as he attempts to find a way to peacefully coexist with the Palestinians while holding together his volatile Likud-led coalition government.

This, combined with the current threat of another Iraqi war, is enough to challenge the skills of any world leader, let alone the youngest prime minister in Israeli history.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1949, Netanyahu, whose name means "God's Gift," is no stranger to controversy.

Nicknamed the "Teflon Prime Minister" for his ability to withstand various crises, Netanyahu is a political survivor skilled in the art of marketing both himself and his political agendas. His savvy use of television sound-bites and media polls has allowed him to survive scandals, political conflicts and security crises in what can only be called a tumultuous time of peace.

Like father, like son

The peace-with-security philosophy which guides Netanyahu's domestic and international defense policy, is traceable to his father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a history professor and a proponent of the idea that the historic bitterness between Arab and Jew made for a seemingly intractable situation.

This philosophy can be seen in Netanyahu's belief that relinquishing any more territory to the Palestinians could not only be dangerous to the country's security, but could reveal a weakness in the Jewish state.

"The reason we have peace at all is because Israel is perceived as strong. If it becomes weak and vulnerable, the peace becomes weak and vulnerable. Anyone who doesn't understand that doesn't live in the Middle East," Netanyahu recently told the Boston Globe.

Netanyahu himself was influenced by his years living away from the Middle East. After going to high school in Philadelphia, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received an undergraduate degree in architecture and a master's degree in business.

Israel beckons

Despite finding success at the Boston Consulting Group, an international business consulting firm, he found the lure of Israel proved too great and he returned to Jerusalem in 1967. He enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and served in an elite commando unit. Netanyahu was wounded during a rescue attempt of a hijacked Sabena Airlines jet at the Ben Gurion Airport in 1972.

Netanyahu voting

And his life would change irrevocably upon his brother's death. Jonathan Netanyahu died in 1976 while leading a raid in Entebbe, Uganda, to free 103 hostages from an Air France plane hijacked by pro-Palestinian terrorists. Devastated by the loss, Netanyahu became outspoken in warning of the threat of terrorism. Those feelings still hold true today as Netanyahu now links Israel's further withdrawal from the West Bank with the Palestinians doing more to fight terrorism.

In 1979 Netanyahu organized an international conference against terrorism by the Jonathan Institute, a private foundation dedicated to his brother. World leaders, including future U.S. President George Bush and future Secretary of State George Shultz attended, setting the path for Netanyahu to enter the political landscape -- first as a deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and later as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations.

Weathering tumultuous times

Clinton and Netanyahu

Netanyahu entered the fray of Israeli politics in 1988, when he was elected to the Knesset as a Likud member and appointed deputy foreign minister. In 1993, he was elected Likud party chairman, and he became Israel's ninth prime minister on May 29, 1996.

Since then, Netanyahu has weathered various scandals including allegations of cronyism, as well as criticism that he was ignoring the terms of the Oslo peace accords. He's faced the resignation of three key Cabinet ministers and seen his country suffer suicide bombings following the construction of Jewish housing in a predominantly Arab Jerusalem neighborhood.

Despite the criticism, Netanyahu does not appear to be backing down. In recent meetings with U.S. President Bill Clinton, Netanyahu held his ground on Israel's need for security despite international pressure from those who say Israel has not lived up to the terms of the peace accords.

And while Netanyahu has been called everything from a "serial bungler" to a political survivor during his 20 months as prime minister, he chooses to sum up his tenure in office to an Israeli newspaper with what has become his calling card: A masterful political sound bite.

"I am not a magician," he says. "I'm not a survivor. I am a winner."

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