The Suez commando’s last stand: He almost drowned in a covert military raid… now Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-breaking reign as Israel’s PM is set to end – with a knife in the back from his closest ally, writes MARK ALMOND
The group of elite Israeli commandos were making their way in a small boat across the Suez Canal at night when all hell broke loose.
Egyptian troops had spotted them and opened fire.
As the special forces tried to make their way back to safety, one of them fell in the water. With a heavy backpack and a lifejacket that refused to inflate, the man was soon struggling and started to drown.
His friends in the boat grabbed at him. But amid the deadly fire of the ambush, they lost him before finally getting hold of him once more and pulling him to the surface.
The date was May 13, 1969 and the drowning soldier was Sgt 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 twice wounded during his time in the army, has never been so close to death.
‘I was nearly killed in a firefight inside the Suez Canal,’ he admitted. ‘I mean that literally.’
Sgt Benjamin Netanyahu would go on to become one of the most Right-wing and controversial prime ministers in Israel’s history
Could his struggle in those dark waters help to explain the extraordinary tenacity he has shown in life at the top of politics?
For 15 years he has been Prime Minister of Israel — first from 1996 to 1999, as the nation’s youngest holder of that post, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin; then again from 2009 to the present day, as its longest-serving PM.
In a country where the electoral system of proportional representation has always resulted in unstable, squabbling coalitions and short-term leaders, ‘King Bibi’, as his supporters call him, has long been hailed as a magician for his knack of winning elections and conjuring up alliances with unlikely partners to defy political gravity and stay at the top.
Nothing the Palestinians, Hezbollah or Iran could throw at his country during his long tenure seemed to weaken his hold on power.
As a crisis manager, no one could match him — and he was certainly not above manufacturing a crisis himself if it skewed things to his advantage.
But now, as his country emerges from its latest confrontation with the Palestinian terror group Hamas — the fourth such conflict in just 12 years — the former commando seems to have fought and lost his last political battle.
And as so often, a long-term leader has been toppled by rivals at home rather than foreign enemies.
In a seismic development, Israeli opposition parties — normally at loggerheads — have reached an agreement to form a new government without Netanyahu at the helm.
A generation of politicians has chafed in Bibi’s shadow.
Of course, veteran political opponents want to see him gone. But what looks to have been fatal to his hold on power is the desertion of former allies who now see the 71-year-old as a political ‘bed-blocker’ denying them their chance to take charge.
Now, as his country emerges from its latest confrontation with the Palestinian terror group Hamas – the fourth such conflict in just 12 years – the former commando seems to have fought and lost his last political battle
Bibi considers his likely far-Right successor Naftali Bennett as his Brutus, the protege who turned assassin.
Rather than offering Netanyahu his unqualified support in recent years, Bennett teamed up with Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid to strengthen his own hand — and force the Prime Minister’s — in coalition negotiations.
Bibi was furious. Bennett had been his chief of staff for two years (2006-08) when he was last in opposition.
Netanyahu had been his mentor and patron, and claims to have plucked Bennett, 49, from the obscurity of Right-wing extremist groups to bring him into the heart of Israeli politics.
Like Netanyahu, Bennett was in an elite Israeli military unit. He then became a high-tech millionaire by selling an anti-fraud software company to a U.S. security firm for £103 million in 2005.
But the affinity between the two men is no longer. Today, Netanyahu considers Bennett a treacherous ingrate.
This kind of bitter personal antagonism has both stalked Netanyahu over the years and been his hallmark.
Many Israelis now fear that the rivalries among their political leaders could be unbridgeable and threaten the stability of the country.
The wider world, too, will watch with apprehension as Bennett struggles to hold together his fragile coalition of nationalists, Centrists, Left-wingers and Arabs before, in theory, handing over to Yair Lapid after two years as part of an agreement the two men have made.
Anything that upsets the status quo in Israel can have dramatic repercussions in the tinder box of the Middle East.
With Netanyahu, you knew at least where he stood. His approach to Palestinian terrorism and to Iran has been unremittingly hardline — which goes down well with his supporters.
Last month, he said Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which killed more than 200 Palestinians in response to Hamas rockets, had ‘set Hamas back by many years’.
Under Netanyahu, Israel also undertook risky but remarkably successful clandestine operations to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme and other military developments.
As Yossi Cohen, the outgoing head of its intelligence agency, Mossad, said at his retirement ceremony, they had reached into ‘the heart of hearts’ of Iran.
Other Israeli PMs might have authorised similarly high-risk operations, but it was Netanyahu who made these successes public and gained from the boost to his popularity while daring Iran to respond.
The wider world, too, will watch with apprehension as Bennett struggles to hold together his fragile coalition of nationalists, Centrists, Left-wingers and Arabs before, in theory, handing over to Yair Lapid after two years
Netanyahu’s relationship with Donald Trump was equally controversial, leading to a closer alignment between the Israeli and U.S. governments.
Trump saw eye to eye with Netanyahu on Iran, the latter welcoming the president’s withdrawal in 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal and the reinstatement of sanctions.
Trump also publicly recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — to the fury 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 U.S. in 1963.
He returned to Israel at 18 to join the army for five years and serve in his commando unit, but afterwards he went back to the U.S. for university.
In 1976, he and his family were devastated when his brother Yonatan, also a commando, was killed leading a raid to rescue hostages from an airliner hijacked by terrorists at Entebbe airport in Uganda.
It would colour his attitude to terrorism for life, and he set up an anti-terrorism institute in Yonatan’s memory.
By 1984, Netanyahu had been appointed Israel’s permanent representative at the UN in New York, and he became involved in domestic politics when he returned to Israel four years later.
Today, he is beset by corruption allegations and stands accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, all of which he is contesting.
In one of them, it is alleged he accepted more than £160,000 worth of gifts — mainly cigar boxes and cases of champagne — from wealthy businessmen, while in another he is said to have dispensed favours in exchange for flattering press coverage.
Will the ex-commando go down without a fight? Not likely. Netanyahu still has immense support. And Bennett is already under pressure — there have been death threats and protesters chanting ‘traitor’ outside the home north of Tel Aviv where he lives with his pastry-chef wife and four children.
Netanyahu is a veteran politician who thinks tactically and does not give way to emotion, whatever pressure he is under.
It is too soon to write off King Bibi — particularly when the only thing that unites the motley coalition against him in the Israeli parliament is the desire to get him out of office.
He is a survivor, as that near-fatal experience in the Suez Canal made only too clear.
Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Centre, Oxford
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