Israel profile - Leaders


Prime minister: Benjamin Netanyahu

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image captionMr Netanyahu, Israel's long-serving prime minister

Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud party, became prime minister after an inconclusive early election in February 2009, a decade after holding the office once before.

He has remained in power by negotiating Israel's volatile party system with skill, heading coalition governments with varying representation from left and right-wing parties.

This 2009 government managed to steer Israel out of the global economic recession, but faced mounting protests about the rising cost of living.

It also failed to make any headway in relations with the Palestinians, Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and the Obama administration in the United States.

Mr Netanyahu's repeated warnings over the perceived threat of Iran's nuclear programme have also complicated relations with the US.

A coalition dispute over the budget prompted Mr Netanyahu to call an early election in January 2013, which saw a boost for two relatively new parties - Yesh Atid in the centre and the pro-settler Jewish Home - in a campaign fought mainly on economic issues.

After months of wrangling the prime minister managed to assemble a coalition with these two parties, plus the small HaTnua splinter group from the Kadima centre party, that excluded most Jewish religious parties and raised the possibility of one of Israel's periodic attempts at rolling back the influence of ultra-Orthodox groups.

But tensions over tax breaks for first-time home buyers, and a controversial bill to reinforce the Jewish nature of the Israeli state, prompted Mr Netanyahu to sack the Yesh Atid and HaTnua leaders from the cabinet.

At early Knesset elections in March 2015, Mr Netanyahu scored a surprise victory over a resurgent Labour Party, now allied with HaTnua in the Zionist Union.

Following protracted negotiations, in May he formed a new coalition government with the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party and several smaller parties, two of them ultra-Orthodox, later supplemented by the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party.

In February 2018 prosecutors began investigating allegations that Mr Netanyahu pressed regulators to help the Bezeq telecoms company in return for favourable news coverage from one of its websites. Mr Netanyahu denies all the allegations, but was formally charged in November 2019 with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three separate cases.

Following three inconclusive rounds of elections, Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz agree to form a national unity government to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

During his previous term as prime minister in 1996-99 Mr Netanyahu was initially hostile towards the new Palestinian Authority, but went on to show some flexibility while maintaining a security-first policy.

Defeated by Labour leader Ehud Barak in 1999, he later served as finance minister under Likud Prime minister Ariel Sharon, pushing through a series of market-oriented reforms before resigning in 2005 in protest at Mr Sharon's decision to pull out from Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu was born in 1949 in Tel Aviv, and spent part of his childhood in the United States where his father was a professor. During his five years in Israel's army, he served as captain of an elite commando unit. A fluent English-speaker, Mr Netanyahu has long been a prominent advocate for Israel in the international media.

President: Reuven Rivlin

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image captionPlain-speaking President Reuven Rivlin

The presidency is a largely ceremonial post and notionally above party politics, but individual presidents have used a combination of their personal prestige and the authority of their office to make interventions in national debates.

Reuven Rivlin, like his predecessor Shimon Peres, gave every sign that he would be such a president.

Born in 1939, a scion of an old Jerusalem family and a stalwart of the right-wing Likud party, President Rivlin has won respect across the political spectrum for his willingness to speak out on controversial issues.

In a country where the two-state solution remains the nominal preference of all major political parties, he supports integrating both Jewish settlers and potentially millions of Palestinians into a single state.

His opposition to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza led to a very public rift with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during his term as speaker of the Knesset parliament in 2003-2006.

His relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were little warmer during his second term as speaker in 2009-2013. He makes a point of reaching out to Israel's Arab minority, saying that they form a "bridge to peaceful co-existence" with the Palestinians.

He beat centre-right politician Meir Sheetrit in a closely-fought parliamentary election for the presidency in June 2014, winning the support of both Arab and pro-settler Knesset members.

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