"Netanyahu is poised to become the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel. He has no national rival. His approval rating, roughly 50%, is at an all-time high. At a moment when incumbents around the world are being shunted aside, he is triumphant."
In late April, Marco Grob traveled to Jerusalem to photograph Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for this week’s cover story by TIME’s managing editor Rick Stengel. It was Grob’s first meeting with the Israeli leader, whom he found friendly and charismatic, albeit a little hesitant about the camera lens. “Powerful people normally get shy during sittings because they’re giving control to a photographer,” Grob said. “You could tell that he didn’t love being in front of the camera, which is not unusual for Netanyahu because he’s in a position of such power.”
The photo shoot lasted about 20 minutes and took place at Netanyahu’s residence. And though he has photographed countless celebrities and politicians throughout his career, Grob was taken aback by the number of security guards present at the shoot. “It was very intense,” Grob says. “But he’s one of the most protected men in the world—and there’s a good reason for that.”
*After a political thunderstroke on May 8 in which he created a center-right coalition with the rival Kadima party, giving him an enormous legislative majority, Netanyahu is poised to become the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel. He has no national rival. His approval rating, roughly 50%, is at an all-time high. At a moment when incumbents around the world are being shunted aside, he is triumphant. With his bullet-proof majority, he has a chance to turn himself into the historic figure he has always yearned to be.He has become, as some commentators have dubbed him, the King of Israel. But to be a historic figure, one must make history. Now we will find out what the king really believes. Is he a statesman or a pol, a builder or a general, the Israeli leader who can finally make peace with the Palestinians or the one who launches a potentially disastrous unilateral attack on Iran? Can he keep Israel a distinctive Jewish state and preserve it as a democratic one?As a historian of the Zionist movement, Bibi knows these choices better than anyone else. As a soldier, he also understands the dark history that lies behind the creation of Israel. The question is whether he is a prisoner of that history or can write a new narrative.Bibi's days-old coalition is more a marriage of convenience than a high-minded quest for national unity. Eight days after the death of his beloved father, two days after calling for elections, Bibi made the deal with Kadima to give him an overwhelming majority. It's been likened to the national unity government that Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol put together on the eve of the Six-Day War, a darker time than today.Some say Bibi's new alliance with a more moderate party gives him the political margin to strike Iran's nuclear facilities unilaterally. If so, Bibi is mum. He tries not to mix the issue of Iran with elective politics. Still, he is routinely hammered by the Israeli press. He gets it from all sides, even close to home. At the end of the evening, Bibi's eldest son walks over to the table. He is currently doing his military service and is slighter and fairer than his father. "My son tells me I have too many yes-men around me," Bibi says with a knowing laugh. "Oh, what I would give for just one yes-man!"When we see Bibi in America or Europe, he seems American or European: he adapts himself to his environment. In Israel, Bibi seems more Israeli, more Middle Eastern. His accent is heavier; his clothes are more rumpled; he is funnier and more relaxed, more rooted to the land of his father and forefathers.The former head of Israel's internal intelligence service recently called Bibi messianic, unsuited to handle the levers of power. Netanyahu himself calls the Iranians messianic, and perhaps it takes one to know one. He is profoundly ambitious and driven, but there is no doubt that he sees his primary responsibility as being the custodian of Israel's safety and that his mission is to preserve his nation for his children and grandchildren.*When I ask Bibi whether he thinks the Iranians are rational actors, he replies, "People say that, but how do you know that?" How do you know that? could be his mantra. People say the Palestinians want to live in peace. How do you know that? People say the Arab Spring is good for democracy. How do you know that? His attitude is, Show me the evidence. Prove it. He sees himself as the last empiricist. He thinks people, especially liberals, take too much on faith. He dwells in reality.Bibi can live with an unfinished argument. After all, the Israelis have been going at it for 4,000 years. Bibi may monitor the polls day to day, but he also puts things in the context of Israel's history. This too shall pass, he often seems to be saying. We can wait it out. People say the status quo is unsustainable. How do you know that? What's another five years, or 50? Ronald Reagan, an idol of Bibi's, used to say, "Trust but verify." Bibi's attitude is "Don't trust. Verify." Like his father, he sees Jewish history as a succession of holocausts.Israel's Might*Others may wring their hands over Israel's militaristic global image. Not him. In the world according to Bibi, it is better to be victor than victim. Greater Israel Bibi presides over an Israel that is significantly more complex and diverse than that of his predecessors. It now has the second largest Jewish population in the world: 6 million, about half a million fewer than the number of Jews in the U.S.A quarter of Israel's population is Arab or non-Jewish. Israel tries to be both Sparta and Athens. It is a martial country that devotes 6.3% of its GDP to defense while being a haven for democracy and entrepreneurialism. After the U.S. and China, Israel has the most companies listed on Nasdaq.The Iranian Exception*When Bibi was Prime Minister for the first time, he addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington and used these words: "The deadline for attaining this goal is extremely close ... Deterrence must be reinforced with prevention, immediate and effective prevention ... Time is running out." He was talking about Iran, and now, 16 years later, time may actually be running out.He sees Iran as exceptional, and not in a good way. "It could be the first time we have a nuclear player who will not necessarily play by the rules. All the previous nuclear powers have been careful," he says. To him, this is as clear a threat to Israel as has ever existed. He gets exercised on the topic. "This is the greatest threat not just to Israel and the Middle East but to civilization. You don't know how they will behave."Bibi does not share the general faith in negotiations or give any ground on the military option. There's a greater threat in doing nothing, he says, than in acting. Game theory would also suggest that there is no downside to Bibi's bluster. But he gives no hint that he is anything but dead serious.Bibi - The American*"I cried when my father told me we were moving to America," Bibi recalls. Bibi enrolled at suburban Cheltenham High School. "Everyone was divided into nerds and jocks. I was both. I was in four honors classes. It was like being tutored in the best private schools." According to Bibi, when he was a senior, he applied to Yale and got in. But he decided to do his military service in Israel and kept deferring his acceptance. He joined the Sayeret Matkal, the elite special-forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces, and stayed in for five years, participating in many counterterrorism operations and returning in 1973 for the October War.On the bookshelf of his private office is a picture of his unit. He walks over to the photograph and describes each man to me. He tells the story of a tall, slender soldier who almost died because he sat down in the snow of the Golan Heights when they were fighting in Syria. "You can freeze in seconds," he says. Bibi points out the Druze guide who, he says, "saved my life twice," once by pulling Bibi out of a river by his hair. He then describes what each man is doing today. Bibi rarely talks about his military service, and when he does, he talks more about his comrades than himself.He decided not to attend Yale but to go to MIT because he thought the future was in technology; he earned a degree in architecture and then got a master's in business administration. Then he worked for a while in Boston at Boston Consulting Group. What he took away from that was Bruce Henderson's idea that every company must find its competitive advantage if it is to succeed over its rivals. He says he has applied the same strategy to Israel.When his brother Yoni was killed at Entebbe, Bibi was devastated. He adored Yoni. In Jerusalem in 1979 he created a conference on terrorism. It was a great success, and Moshe Arens, then the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., invited him to be the No. 2 in the embassy in Washington in 1982. In 1983, Arens was summoned back to Israel to be the Defense Minister, and Bibi became Israel's ambassador to the U.N. and the face of Israel on American TV. He appeared regularly on Nightline and became the Israeli-American It boy--confident, handsome, fearsomely articulate in virtually accentless English. Every suburban Jewish mother had a crush on him.Until Bibi, Israel had had only one appealing spokesperson in the U.S., the dapper, British-accented Abba Eban. But if Eban was Masterpiece Theatre, Bibi was the streetwise local anchorman who told it like it was. Bibi was the first Israeli-American crossover artist and acquired a keen understanding of American media on which he has relied ever since. He also has a better understanding of U.S. politics than many American politicians. His speech to a joint session of Congress in 2011 received 29 standing ovations.Bibi/Mitt*It was at Boston Consulting that he met Mitt Romney. "We did not know each other that well," Bibi says. "He was the whiz kid. I was just in the back of the room." Bibi says he has seen Romney only a handful of times over the years and only once this year. They spoke for 10 minutes during his visit to Washington in March, mainly about Iran.Israel/US personal relationship*"I follow American politics," he says evenly, "but I don't interfere in American politics."The White House might disagree. Until Netanyahu came along, Israeli Prime Ministers believed that the key relationship was with the U.S. President. But Bibi had a different insight: an Israeli Prime Minister must have a relationship not only with the President but also with Congress, the American public, American Jewry and, of course, the U.S. media. To Bibi's way of thinking, the President is not necessarily even the first among equals.Bibi is popular among American Jews, but so is Barack Obama. A survey in April found that 61% of Jewish voters favored Obama and only 28% were for Mitt Romney. Jewish voters are one of the few groups in the U.S. that have historically voted against their economic interests, usually backing Democratic candidates over GOP counterparts by at least 2 to 1. And though Obama ruffled the feathers of many American Jews in his first two years in office, tensions have mostly abated. Most of Obama's Jewish bundlers have reupped for the campaign.Some close advisers to Bibi see Obama as the one exception in a long line of Israeli exceptionalists in the White House. This group regards Obama as someone who has no special fidelity to Israel, unlike his immediate predecessor. But at the moment, both sides are singing "Kumbaya." Bibi says cooperation with U.S. intelligence is good. Says Donilon: "I think the Israeli-U.S. relationship is as strong as it's ever been."No Justice, No Peace*Bibi has never made peace with the peace process. "Peace treaties don't guarantee peace," he says. He believes that the Israelis and the Palestinians have competing and incompatible narratives. Forget the 1967 borders: Bibi wants to go back to 1948 or further. "The first 50 years before 1967 were all about conflict," he says. "So what's new?" Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas--Bibi calls him by his honorific, Abu Mazen--would like to resume negotiations where they left off with Bibi's predecessor Ehud Olmert. Abbas and Olmert met 36 times in 2007 and 2008, and both say they came closer to a deal than anyone had before.When Obama took office, people thought he would bring a new dynamic to the talks that would favor the Palestinians. Obama asked Bibi to freeze settlement construction for one year as an act of good faith. And then Abbas did not come to the table. When Abbas was finally coaxed to do so, he presented Bibi with the same package Olmert had negotiated. Abbas says he won't talk while settlements are being built, and Bibi says he wants talks "without preconditions." The only freeze now is in the negotiations themselves.But Bibi has taken a harder line. He says he will accept only Israeli forces, not NATO's or anyone else's, to provide security in the Jordan Valley. Perhaps the biggest impediment is Bibi's insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." In other words, Palestinians must not only renounce claims to present-day Israel but also accept Israel's historical narrative.It is a little eerie to hear Bibi insist on this because it echoes what his father said over and over for more than 50 years about Israel. To some, Bibi isn't negotiating; he is dictating terms. The stalemate is what drove Abbas to the U.N. to seek full recognition and membership from the world body last September. The real anxiety for Israel is that recognition of Palestine would give them access to the International Criminal Court, opening Israel up to a potentially vast number of claims. Meanwhile, settlement construction has resumed with a vengeance. Settlements and the buffer zones and roads supporting them now constitute 40% of the West Bank.The longer Bibi and I talk about the Palestinians, the more I get the sense he just does not believe that they want peace or that they are capable of democracy if they had it. He remains skeptical about the direction of the Arab Spring. "Locke and Montesquieu are not exactly household names there yet," he says.Bibi-King of Israel*What Bibi does have now is a governing coalition that will not leak or collapse if he opens negotiations. He will no longer have to look over his shoulder. He will not have to call elections at the drop of a hat. He has not had that before, and it gives him room to maneuver and room to compromise. "Now he is the emperor ... he can do anything," Abu Mazen said last week. "If I were him, I would do it now, now, now."Something to Believe In Bibi likes to say Moses was a great leader but not a great navigator. But to Bibi's delight, it turns out that Moses' sense of direction wasn't so bad after all. The discovery in December 2010 of a gargantuan deposit of natural gas off Israel's Mediterranean coast and an even larger area of shale oil not far from Jerusalem will likely turn Israel into a net oil and gas exporter. No longer will the Arabs in the Middle East have a monopoly on energy.This bit of serendipity is not enough to turn Bibi into an optimist, but it is something tangible that will help him secure Israel's future. It is, in fact, something to trust. But there isn't much else he trusts. Obama often quotes Martin Luther King Jr.'s notion that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. Bibi's not so sure. In the end, Bibi would like to be a hero, but he will not be one at the expense of Israel's security. He wants to be a defining figure in Israeli history and a significant player on the world stage, but he will not risk what he sees as Israel's safety to be one. His ambition and now his security as Prime Minister, though, may let him take that risk.Of the Palestinians, he says, "If they figure it out, they will never have a better partner than me. I can make it happen and make it stick." He is a believer in Israeli and Jewish exceptionalism. The Jews have a deeply ingrained ingenuity that has always helped them survive. "Now, with our ingenuity, we also have gas. We're in a providential situation. Our story is one of overcoming tremendous odds. People respect that." He is silent for a moment. "If you're a deeply religious person, you have a guarantee." He pauses, knowing that he has none. "It would be great to sit back. That would be nice." Nice as that might be, he knows it is an option he does not have.