MARK ALMOND: Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign as Israel’s prime minister will end after stabbing allies in the back
The group of Israeli elite commandos made their way across the Suez Canal in a small boat at night when all hell broke loose.
Egyptian troops spotted them and opened fire.
As the special forces attempted to return to safety, one of them fell into the water. With a heavy backpack and a life jacket that refused to inflate, the man soon struggled and began drowning.
His friends in the boat grabbed him. But amid the deadly fire of the ambush, they lost him before finally retrieving him and pulling him to the surface.
The date was May 13, 1969, and the drowning soldier was Sergeant Benjamin Netanyahu, who would go on to become one of the most right-wing and controversial prime ministers in Israel’s history.
Whether the incident shaped him as a leader is hard to say.
What is certain is that Netanyahu, who was wounded twice during his time in the military, has never been this close to death.
“I almost died in a gunfight in the Suez Canal,” he admitted. “I mean that literally.”
Sgt Benjamin Netanyahu set to become one of the most right-wing and controversial prime ministers in Israel’s history
Could his struggle in those dark waters help explain the extraordinary tenacity he has shown living at the top of politics?
He has been Prime Minister of Israel for 15 years – first from 1996 to 1999, as the country’s youngest holder of that post, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin; then again from 2009 to the present, as the longest-serving prime minister.
In a country where the electoral system of proportional representation has always resulted in unstable, bickering coalitions and short-term leaders, ‘King Bibi’, as his supporters call him, has long been hailed as a wizard for his talent for winning elections and conjuring alliances. engage with unlikely partners to defy political gravity and stay on top.
Nothing the Palestinians, Hezbollah or Iran could throw at his country during his long tenure seemed to weaken his grip on power.
As a crisis manager, no one could match him – and he certainly wasn’t too keen on creating a crisis himself if it skewed things in his favor.
But as his country emerges from its final confrontation with the Palestinian terror group Hamas — the fourth such conflict in just 12 years — the former command appears to have fought and lost its last political battle.
And as so often, a long-term leader has been overthrown by domestic rivals rather than foreign enemies.
In a seismic development, Israeli opposition parties — normally at odds — have reached an agreement to form a new government without Netanyahu at the helm.
A generation of politicians has scraped in Bibi’s shadow.
Of course, experienced political opponents want to see him go. But what appears to have been fatal to his grip on power is the desertion of former allies who now view the 71-year-old as a political “bed-blocker” denying them the chance to take charge.
As his country emerges from its final confrontation with the Palestinian terror group Hamas – the fourth such conflict in just 12 years – the former commando appears to have fought and lost its last political battle.
Bibi considers his likely far-right successor Naftali Bennett to be his Brutus, the protégé turned hit man.
Rather than offer Netanyahu his unconditional support in recent years, Bennett teamed up with centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid to strengthen his own hand — and that of the prime minister — in coalition negotiations.
Bibi was furious. Bennett had been his chief of staff for two years (2006-2008) when he was last in opposition.
Netanyahu had been his mentor and patron, claiming to have plucked Bennett, 49, from the obscurity of right-wing extremist groups to put him at the heart of Israeli politics.
Like Netanyahu, Bennett was part of an elite Israeli military unit. He then became a high-tech millionaire by selling a fraud-fighting software company to an American security firm for £103 million in 2005.
But the affinity between the two men is no longer there. Today, Netanyahu considers Bennett an insidious ungrateful.
This kind of bitter personal antagonism has stalked Netanyahu over the years and has been his hallmark.
Many Israelis now fear that the rivalry between their political leaders could be unbridgeable and threaten the stability of the country.
The rest of the world, too, will watch with concern as Bennett struggles to keep his fragile coalition of nationalists, centrists, leftists and Arabs together before, in theory, handing the two men over to Yair Lapid after two years as part of a agreement. have made.
Anything that disrupts the status quo in Israel could have dramatic consequences in the Middle East’s tinderbox.
At least with Netanyahu you knew where he stood. His approach to Palestinian terrorism and Iran has been relentlessly harsh – which has pleased his supporters.
Last month, he said the Israeli bombing of Gaza, which killed more than 200 Palestinians in response to Hamas missiles, had reversed Hamas by many years.
Under Netanyahu, Israel also undertook risky but remarkably successful clandestine operations to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program and other military developments.
As Yossi Cohen, the outgoing Mossad intelligence chief, said at his farewell ceremony, they had reached “the heart of the hearts” of Iran.
Other Israeli prime ministers may have authorized similar high-risk operations, but it was Netanyahu who made these successes public, taking advantage of the boost to his popularity as he challenged Iran to respond.
The rest of the world, too, will watch with concern as Bennett struggles to keep his fragile coalition of nationalists, centrists, leftists and Arabs together before, in theory, handing over to Yair Lapid after two years.
Netanyahu’s relationship with Donald Trump was equally controversial, leading to closer alignment between the Israeli and US governments.
Trump faced Netanyahu over Iran, the latter welcoming the president’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the restoration of sanctions.
Trump also publicly recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — much to the ire of the Arab world, which supports Palestinian claims to the eastern half of the city.
But then Bibi always had an affinity with America. Although he was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, his family had moved to the US by 1963.
He returned to Israel at the age of 18 to join the military and serve in its commando unit for five years, but then went back to the US to study.
In 1976, he and his family were devastated when his brother Yonatan, also a commando, was killed when he led a raid on Uganda’s Entebbe airport to rescue hostages from a plane hijacked by terrorists.
It would color his attitude to terrorism for life, and he established a counter-terrorism institute in Yonatan’s memory.
In 1984, Netanyahu was appointed Israel’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, and he became involved in domestic politics when he returned to Israel four years later.
Today, he is plagued by corruption charges and is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, all of which he is fighting.
In one, he is said to have accepted more than £160,000 in gifts – mainly cigar boxes and cases of champagne – from wealthy businessmen, while in another he is said to have granted favors in return for flattering press coverage.
Will the ex-command go down without a fight? Unlikely. Netanyahu still has huge support. And Bennett is already under pressure – there have been death threats and protesters chanting “traitor” outside the house north of Tel Aviv, where he lives with his pastry chef wife and four children.
Netanyahu is an accomplished politician who thinks tactically and does not give in to emotions no matter what pressure he is under.
It is too early to write off King Bibi – especially when the only thing uniting the motley crew against him in the Israeli parliament is the desire to remove him from office.
He is a survivor, as that near-fatal experience in the Suez Canal made all too clear.
Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Centre, Oxford