Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Jim Hollander / Pool  /  EPA
Benjamin Netanyahu has been a staunch defender of Israel's right to build in Jerusalem.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/16/2010 7:43:20 PM ET 2010-03-16T23:43:20

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never been one to shy away from controversy.

One of the most right-wing leaders in Israel’s history, he's often found himself struggling to balance competing pressures from Israel’s key ally, the U.S., and Israel’s restive far right. His undying pledge: to defend Israel and the Jewish people.

"No one yet knows what awaits the Jews in the 21st century, but we must make every effort to ensure that it is better than what befell them in the 20th, the century of the Holocaust,” Netanyahu once famously said.

Netanyahu, 60, leader of the right-leaning Likud party, became premier for the second time in 2009 following parliamentary election results that saw the centrist Kadima party win the most seats but not enough to forge a coalition government.

Netanyahu first served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. He lost the office when the Labor party unseated his party at the polls, and Ariel Sharon took over the leadership of Likud. In 2005, Sharon, just before a massive stroke that left him in a coma, split from Likud to set up the Kadima party, opening the door for Netanyahu to take back the reins of Likud.

Netanyahu became a fierce critic of the Kadima-led coalition and Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert. He blasted Olmert for saying that Israel's survival depended on reaching a peace settlement with Palestinians.

Widely referred to in Israel by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu was the first Israeli leader to be born after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.

Netanyahu spent his high school years in the U.S., then served a five-year stint in the Israel Defense Forces, in which he was a captain in an elite commando unit. He returned to the U.S. to attend college. He received a B.S. in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.S. from the MIT Sloan School of Management and studied political science at Harvard University and MIT, according to his Web site.

Netanyahu worked for six years in the private sector before working at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He was Israel's ambassador to the United Nations from 1984-88. After returning to Israel, he was elected to the Knesset in 1988 and became leader of the Likud party in 1993.

Elusive peace deal
During his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu emphasized a policy of three no's: "no withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no withdrawal or even discussion of the case of Jerusalem and no negotiations under any preconditions."

Slideshow: Clashes in East Jerusalem

He has, however, recognized the need for a two-state solution. He agreed to hand over 80 percent of Hebron in 1997 to Palestinian Authority control and the following year signed the Wye River Memorandum outlining further withdrawals from the West Bank — moves that some of his right-wing critics characterized as a surrender.

But today a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians remains far off, and many blame Netanyahu for the impasse.

On a recent visit by Vice President Joe Biden to try to jumpstart peace talks, Israel embarrassed the U.S. by announcing plans to build new houses for Jews in disputed east Jerusalem, which has a large Arab population and which Palestinians claim for a future capital.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Israeli move was "insulting" to peace efforts and called Netanyahu to complain.

Netanyahu apologized for the timing of the announcement, made by the Interior Ministry. But he also indicated he has no intention of stopping the construction. In an address to Parliament, Netanyahu said construction “will continue in Jerusalem as this has been the case for the past 42 years.”

Information compiled from Associated Press, Reuters, BBC News, New York Times, PBS, netanyahu.org.

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