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Benjamin Netanyahu, a hawk in the eye of the storm

Benjamin Netanyahu began his best-selling autobiography with the story of a daring Special Forces raid he took part in to free Israeli passengers from a hijacked airliner in 1972, an event that helped shape his hawkish image during more than three decades in politics, Reuters reports.

It is one of the ironies surrounding Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister who, within weeks of beginning his record sixth term in office, one of his signature policies – an overhaul of the judiciary – caused such tensions in the Army that his Defence chief warned national security was at risk.

Along with an escalating wave of violence across the West Bank, the battle over judicial reform has dominated the agenda of what is widely considered the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

On Monday, newly fitted with a pacemaker, Netanyahu was in Parliament as lawmakers voted on a key element of the package, a bill that would curtail the Supreme Court’s power to rein in decisions by the executive, as hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrated outside.

Huge crowds have taken to the streets every week since the start of the year in a battle that has split Israeli society down the middle, pitting liberal and secular Jews against religious parties and settler groups.

Netanyahu, under indictment on corruption charges he has always denied, says the proposed changes are needed to rein in activist judges who he and his allies see as encroaching on politics.

However, critics note that the proposals could potentially help save him from conviction and imprisonment over the charges, which allege that he unlawfully received gifts and granted regulatory favours in return for positive news coverage.

Opposition to the plans has come from almost all of Israel’s business sector, including prized hi-tech, lawyers, academics and a striking number of military reservists, notably fighter pilots and members of the elite Special Forces like Netanyahu’s old Sayeret Matkal unit.

Although many of the reservists protesting have said they would serve in the event of a real security emergency, in a country in a constant state of military alert the revolt has been one of the most striking aspects of the battle over the overhaul.

Israel’s top General, Herzi Halevi, has warned that the divisions risk creating “dangerous cracks” in the military.

Perhaps the most polarising of Israel’s leaders, but a supreme pragmatist, Netanyahu had always been seen as a recognisable conservative – pro-business and tough on security.

A stocky, imposing figure, his poise and flawless American-English have underlined his outsized role on the world stage.

But he has been equally at ease in the rough-and-tumble world of Israeli politics, appealing to the gut instincts of his core voter base in gritty towns and settlements far from the bright lights of fashionable Tel Aviv.

However, before his last election win in 2022, boxed in by the corruption trial that he cast as a partisan witch-hunt, he was forced to seek alliances outside the traditional political mainstream. That meant closing ranks with religious and ultra-nationalist parties untroubled about upsetting Israel’s allies with their openly expansionist agenda.

A life-long security hardliner and a scourge of liberal opinion, Netanyahu described himself in his autobiography – “Bibi My Story” – as “conservative but decidedly not extreme”.

But he found himself well to the left of coalition partners including Itamar Ben-Gvir, convicted in 2007 of racist incitement against Arabs, and Bezalel Smotrich, who, soon after gaining office, called in March 2022 for a Palestinian village to be “wiped out”.

US President Joe Biden, a life-long supporter of Israel, has made no secret of his alarm, calling for consensus on the judicial reforms and describing Netanyahu’s cabinet as one of the most extreme he had seen in more than 50 years of dealing with Israeli governments.

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