‘The great survivor’: Is Benjamin Netanyahu’s legacy in jeopardy?

He is the leader of one of the most polarising governments in the world, and his political career has at times divided his own country.

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Benjamin Netanyahu has suffered election defeats and faced corruption allegations, all the while navigating his country through an on-again off-again peace process.

“Bibi” as he is known, is a political veteran. He is currently serving his second stint as Prime Minister, 18 years after he lost the leadership.

1996-99: First turn as Prime Minister

“Benjamin Netanyahu is known as the great survivor of Israeli politics,” explains Dr Leanne Piggott, from the Centre for Social Impact.

“Shimon Peres was the clear favourite to win the Israeli elections in May 1996.

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“(But Netanyahu) won the 1996 election, using the campaign slogan ‘Netanyahu – making a safe peace’. Ever since then, a focus on security has been a winning formula for Netanyahu.”

“He’s been active in Israeli politics for a long time,” adds Dr Amin Saikal, from the Centre of Arab Studies at Australian National University.

“Netanyahu was brought up in a household that promoted devotion to Israel. He is a very well-educated man, and of course he specialised in terrorism and anti-terrorism and was promoted as an expert on that.”

Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara at a victory rally after winning the 1996 election. (AAP)AP-DIG

Dr Anthony Billingsley, senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of New South Wales, says Mr Netanyahu’s first turn as leader was not particularly successful globally, particularly because “he demonstrated his determination to oppose a Palestinian state.”

“Bill Clinton at the time declared that progress on a Palestinian state would be impossible as long as Netanyahu was in power,” he said.

In 1999, after one term as Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak.

“He then lost power (of the Likud Party) through scandal to (Ariel) Sharon, who became a very very powerful unchallengeable figure in Israeli politics,” explained Dr Billingsley.

Upon losing the Likud leadership, Benjamin Netanyahu resigned from politics. It proved to be a temporary move.

2000s: Political resurgence

It was the decline of Prime Minister Sharon following a stroke that enabled Mr Netanyahu to return to power, after Mr Sharon’s successor – Ehud Olmert – then became engulfed in his own corruption scandal.

That, Dr Billingsley argues, gave Benjamin Netanyahu a renewed advantage.

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“And he was able to build on that but also run the same thing that Sharon did, which was the idea of scare politics,” Dr Billingsley said.

“So he tried to convince Israelis that they were under threat, (that) there’d been incidents along the border – with Gaza in particular.

“These were things that were very effective in galvanising political support.”

Ariel Sharon (R) named Benjamin Netanyahu (L) Foreign Minister during his time as Israeli leader. Here the pair are pictured in 2002. (AAP)AAP

2009-present: Return as Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu was the first Israeli Prime Minister born in Israel after its establishment as a state. He’s also become the only PM in Israeli history to be elected three times in a row.

“Having won elections again in 2009, 2013 and 2015, Netanyahu has provided Israel with remarkably stable government for the last eight years,” Dr Piggott said.

“The perception among the majority of Israelis is that (the) Palestinians’ acts…reveal their unwillingness to compromise and refusal to negotiate, all of which have deeply scarred the political left in Israel and come to Netanyahu’s political rescue time and again when he looked like he was in political trouble.”

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It is that anti-Palestinian position, Dr Billingsley argues, which helped Mr Netanyahu clinch the 2015 election – an election which seemed destined to deal him a heavy defeat.

“This was an appalling piece of politics because he certainly was on course (for defeat),” he said.

“It looked like he was going to suffer severely in that election and he suddenly announced that the opposition were bussing the Palestinians in droves to the polling stations. And this, whether it was true or not, wasn’t really the point, the point was he managed to frighten enough people with anti-Palestinian (rhetoric).

“And these are Israeli-Palestinians – they’re not people from the West Bank or Gaza, but Israeli citizens. He was able to frighten enough people to come out and vote for him to give him that extra boost in his votes.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

“Prime Minister Netanyahu had never really accepted the principle of ‘land for peace’. He has always emphasised under the principle of ‘peace for peace’,” Dr Saikal said.

“That’s why he opposed the (1993) Oslo peace process from the very beginning. He and Ariel Sharon from the Likud Party opposed the Oslo peace process and they both did everything possible to kill that process.

“Now it seems that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the right-wing elements within his party, within his government, have succeeded in killing the internationally-backed two-state resolution.”

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Despite his refusal to commit to it during his visit to Washington last week Dr Piggott says Mr Netanyahu has long-backed a two-state solution, but agrees that right-wing pressure is a concern.

“The main political threat to Netanyahu comes from the Israeli right, which wants Israel to annex the West Bank or large parts of it,” she said.

And, Dr Billingsley says, Netanyahu is navigating tumultuous ground in a bid to remain in power and keep all parties on side.

“He has a real problem in that he has a very, very powerful right wing, people like (defence minister Avigdor) Lieberman, (Naftali) Bennett and others are very extreme right-wingers. What he does is to allow the more extreme positions to run and he may, for example, allow them to get passed in the Knesset,” Dr Billingsley said.

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“Recently, (Israel) just had legislation approving the takeover, the expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land. Now the idea is this will fall over when the courts get to look at it.

“So on one hand he’s sort of pandering to the right, and on the other hand he’s confident – or hopeful anyway – that it won’t go as far as supporters of that position would like.”

A legacy in jeopardy?

Another threat to the Netanyahu legacy comes in the form of renewed corruption allegations, which the Israeli press has dubbed the ‘Bibi scandal’.

The Prime Minister and his wife, Sara, have been accused of receiving numerous illicit gifts over the years. In December, Israel’s attorney-general ordered a criminal investigation into the pair’s behaviour.

“He hasn’t been convicted for any of these allegations, but I think it appears from the (Israeli) press reports he is in a difficult position,” Dr Saikal said.

“But there have been allegations of this crime against him before and he has been able to really get away from them.”

Corruption charges are threatening to destroy the Israeli Prime Minister’s legacy.AP-DIG

“Nobody can be certain whether Netanyahu will or will not politically survive the current corruption charges he faces,” adds Dr Piggott.

“He is clearly worried about them, and the charges are a major distraction at a critical time.”

Dr Billingsley believes Prime Minister Netanyahu is using meetings with world leaders – like last week’s White House trip to see US President Donald Trump – in part to distract his citizens.

“In Netanyahu’s case they wanted to detract from the potential that he may face serious investigation and charges of corruption,” he said.

The “great survivor” touches down in Australia tomorrow.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint news conference at the White House. (AAP)AAP

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