Benjamin Netanyahu

updated 05/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1991 01:00AM

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's deputy foreign minister, was fielding a question from a television interviewer in January when the mournful wail of an air raid siren sounded. Another night, another Scud and the 41-year-old former commando leader didn't miss a beat: He simply donned a gas mask and kept talking. Besides, to Bibi, as Netanyahu is known throughout Israel, the real action was right there in the studio. "To me, a TV interview is like a boxing ring," he says. "I don't remember ever being intimidated by an aggressive interviewer. I relish a debate and am not afraid of a good argument."

Israel's supporters relished his stand-up performances. When war struck, Netanyahu became the TV voice—and face—of his beleaguered nation. In more than 200 live interviews, his flawless English and his calm demeanor helped muster support around the world for Scud-weary Israel. Fan mail still arrives from all corners of the globe—including love notes from little American towns Netanyahu has never heard of, inviting him to visit. Of course he's a hero at home too. As the conflict wore on, an Israeli magazine voted him the man-women-most-wanted-to-be-with-in-a-bomb-shelter (Does Arthur Kent know about this?). Nor did his grace under pressure go unnoticed within Israel's ruling Likud party, where he is now a strong candidate for a cabinet post—and possibly some day even Prime Minister.

Netanyahu has been fighting Israel's enemies for more than two decades. In 1968 he led a nighttime raid on Beirut's airport that destroyed 14 Arab planes in retaliation for a PLO attack on an El Al passenger jet. Four years later, he helped storm a jetliner that PLO hijackers had forced to land at Israel's Lod (now Ben Gurion) Airport. But it was the bold Israeli raid at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976 that most dramatically affected his life. After hearing the news that 103 hostages had been freed, Netanyahu, who was studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called his family in Jerusalem and learned that the one Israeli killed in the famous raid was his older brother, Jonathan.

Returning to Jerusalem, Netanyahu founded the Jonathan Institute to study terrorism. (In 1979 presidential aspirant George Bush attended one of the institute's seminars.) Since then Netanyahu has written or edited scores of articles and books on the subject. "People actually thought terrorists were desperate champions of freedom," he says. "Today it is clear they are simply individuals paid to be instruments of totalitarian regimes."

Born in Tel Aviv and reared in Jerusalem, Netanyahu moved to Philadelphia at age 13 when his father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, took a post at what is now the Annenberg Research Institute. Benjamin received both his bachelor's in architecture and master's in business administration from MIT. In 1982 Israel's Ambassador to Washington picked Netanyahu to be his deputy, and two years later he became, at 35, Israel's youngest U.N. Ambassador. As one of Shamir's inner circle of confidants, he took up his present post in Jerusalem in 1988. He parries speculation about his political ambitions with his usual verbal flair: "Samuel Goldwyn once said that it's difficult to make forecasts—especially about the future."

Three days after the war ended, the twice-divorced Netanyahu married Sara Ben-Artzi, a 32-year-old child psychologist. Naturally, Netanyahu had other things to do that day. Two hours before the wedding, he was in his office doing an interview with David Frost.

His marathon TV work meant spending nights in the situation room at the foreign office in Jerusalem. "Due to time differences, I sometimes gave 18 to 20 interviews from 1 o'clock to 4 o'clock in the morning," he says. Except for stolen catnaps he got little sleep at all during the first 60 hours of the war. Finally he became so exhausted he was forced to cancel a live discussion on one of Britain's top talk shows. He did not want to risk saying the wrong thing. "During the war." he explained, "what we said was extremely important because it was monitored by Saddam Hussein in his bunker, by George Bush in the White House, by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin—and, I suspect," he says, smiling, "even by Yitzhak Shamir in Israel."

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