Netanyahus ascent from talking head to new head of state

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JERUSALEM — He has gone from leading commandos in an anti-terror operation to becoming the youngest prime minister ever to head the Jewish state.

Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, 46, is referred to by some as the "master of the sound bite." The Likud Party leader, who squeaked past Prime Minister Shimon Peres in last week's elections by a margin of 29,457 votes — almost 3 million were cast altogether — is a familiar face to Americans.

He became the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. in 1982. Two years later, he was appointed Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, a post he held until 1988, the year he was elected to the Knesset.

During his U.N. tenure, Netanyahu led the campaign to open the U.N.'s Nazi War Crimes Archive.

From 1988 to 1991, he was Israel's deputy foreign minister and a member of Israel's delegation to the Madrid peace talks. From 1991 to 1992, he was a deputy minister in the office of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Netanyahu, who speaks a fluent Americanized English, emerged during his years in Washington and at the United Nations as a principal Likud spokesman on ABC-TV's "Nightline" and other television news programs.

During the 1991 Gulf War, he gained attention worldwide as Israel's spokesman. When a scud attack interrupted an interview with CNN, he donned a gas mask and continued.

In 1993, as the Labor Party's Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were hammering out the Oslo peace accords, Netanyahu rocketed ahead of Likud veterans to become the right-wing party's leader.

During the campaign, he went on Israeli TV to announce he had been having an affair. The scandal came to be known as "Bibigate."

Netanyahu, who has been married three times, said he went public because opponents inside Likud were trying to blackmail him with a steamy videotape. He currently is married to Sara, with whom he has two young sons. He also has an 18-year-old daughter from his first marriage.

Last November, he was in the hot seat again, facing accusations that he had fostered the climate of extremism that led to Yitzhak Rabin's assassination — charges he vigorously denied. At Rabin's funeral, the slain prime minister's widow, Leah, refused to shake Netanyahu's hand.

A skilled political operator, Netanyahu improved his chances for the premiership by negotiating a merger between Likud and the Tsomet and Gesher parties. The move also stilled the prime ministerial ambitions of those parties' heads, Rafael Eitan and David Levy.

Netanyahu, who ran an American-style campaign entailing commercials filmed in a room that resembled the White House's Oval Office, is the Tel Aviv-born son of a Cornell University professor.

After spending most of his teen years in the United States and attending high school in suburban Philadelphia, he studied architecture and business administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Netanyahu served as a soldier and officer in an anti-terror unit in the Israel Defense Force, leading commandos disguised as airport workers onto a commandeered Belgian Sabena airliner in May 1972. He was shot and wounded during that mission.

Many of his articles have appeared in the American and foreign media, and Netanyahu is also the author and editor of several books, most of which deal with terrorism.

Until now he has largely lived in the shadow of his late older brother. Hailed as a hero by Israelis, Yonatan "Yoni" Netanyahu died in action while leading the spectacular 1976 IDF raid on Uganda's Entebbe airport, striving to free Jews from an Air France plane that had been hijacked by Arab and West German terrorists.

Ironically, the rescue, which has been called a watershed event in the war against terrorism, was overseen in large part by then-Defense Minister Peres.

During the latest campaign, Netanyahu flayed Peres, charging that he wrongly put his trust in the Palestinians, and citing as proof the string of suicide bombings in February and March.

Since 1976, Netanyahu has been the director of the Jonathan Institute, a foundation named after his brother that studies ways to combat terrorism.