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A father's shadow

How family has shaped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City April 1, 2009. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

In the land of the biblical patriarchs, the stories of fathers and sons matter.

And the story of the Netanyahu family is something as ancient as Leviticus and as modern as the Kennedys.

To understand Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, you need to understand the hard-line, uncompromising ideology of a father who pushed his sons to succeed and how the tragic death of the oldest son shaped the destiny of the younger brother, who Tuesday was sworn in as prime minister of Israel for a second time.

All of this family history looms over Netanyahu as the 30 ministers in his newly formed government take their seats in parliament today.

It shapes the life and beliefs of a leader on the edge of what many see as a last desperate chance to breathe life back into an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that has lingered on diplomatic life-support since it collapsed into violence in the fall of 2000.

Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion — still alive and in his late 90s — is famous for a towering intellect and renowned for bitter clashes with Israel’s more liberal intellectual elite. Father and son share a great deal: tenacity, perseverance and above all a view of themselves as outsiders.

But where the father is a rock-hard ideologue adamantly opposed to giving up even an inch of “Eretz Israel,” or the biblically defined “Land of Israel,” the son is a political survivor who has fought his way back to power and, according to many political analysts, is obsessed enough with his own legacy to at least contemplate forging an agreement aimed at ending the decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence and war.

Just before his swearing-in ceremony Tuesday night, Netanyahu said his government would “work toward peace on three tracks: economic, security and political.”

Netanyahu did not voice support for a two-state solution. He appointed Avigdor Lieberman — the hard-right nationalist who has a reputation for derogatory remarks toward Palestinians and a firm resistance to the peace process — as foreign minister.

Still, in his first term from 1996 to 1999 Netanyahu implemented the Hebron Agreement, which returned some portions of occupied West Bank land to Palestinians. And as history has proved, right-wing governments tend to make more progress in implementing peace agreements here than the more liberal Labor Party.

Netanyahu said yesterday, “Under the final settlement, the Palestinians will have all the rights to govern themselves except those that endanger the security and existence of the state of Israel.”

The question is, would his father disown him if he did forge such a deal? And will Netanyahu be liberated from all that patriarchal judgment if the aging and ailing father does not survive to see it?