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A Reversal of Roles for Israel's Ex-Premier

Netanyahu, sworn in as Sharon's foreign minister, has his sights set on a higher post in a nation much changed since he last held power.

November 07, 2002|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Three years after he was drummed from office, Benjamin Netanyahu formally launched his return to power Wednesday, taking the oath of foreign minister in Israel's caretaker government but keeping his eyes on a higher prize.

The former prime minister's return is the latest twist in a tumultuous political tangle that toppled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government and set the stage for Israel's third national election in four years.

With balloting scarcely 11 weeks away and nine months ahead of schedule, Netanyahu is confronting an enormously changed Israel.

Israelis are poorer today than they have been in a long time. They are dying in political violence at a pace unmatched in decades.

By any objective measure, the incumbent political party overseeing such domestic tribulations should be in dire straits. Not here. The candidate of the right-wing Likud Party will almost certainly become the next prime minister of Israel, whether it's Netanyahu or his archrival, Sharon.

The reasons behind that apparent paradox help explain the fundamental political and psychological changes in Israel wrought by more than two years of dead-end fighting with the Palestinians.

Most Israelis blame the violence -- a relentless march of suicide bombings and army assaults -- on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his failure to reach agreement with then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David peace talks in July 2000. Whether that blame is completely justified, most Israelis have become convinced that they cannot make peace with Arafat and that military force is the answer.

This is a nation founded by Holocaust survivors and informed by repeated war; nevertheless, by the last decade Israelis were beginning to have confidence in the survival of the Jewish state. But the uncertainties of the last two years have revived deep-seated feelings of fear and danger.

"The siege mentality is back," veteran Israeli pollster Rafi Smith said Wednesday. "Everything is covered by the cloud of the intifada."

And with a siege mentality, Smith said, a disillusioned, anxious public lurches to the right and becomes more hard-line. Doves become hawks. And few Israelis are keen to alter their leadership, despite a consensus that things are going very badly, he said.

Sharon came to office in a landslide with a promise to make Israelis safe again. In the 20 months since, he launched Israel's largest military offensive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 1967 Middle East War, partly to wipe out what he views as Palestinian terrorism, and partly to wipe out Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. Most of the West Bank and much of the Gaza Strip today remain occupied by Israeli forces.

No End to Conflict

But the violence hasn't stopped. Two more Israelis were killed Wednesday when a Palestinian gunman who belonged to the radical Islamic movement Hamas infiltrated a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. The gunman also was killed.

The economy has been devastated by the war and a related collapse in tourism to Israel. A new government report says nearly one in five Israelis is living below the poverty line, defined as an annual income of $11,208 for a family of four. Three years ago, the figure was one in six.

Still, polls published Wednesday show that Likud will probably coast to victory in the election, tentatively set for Jan. 28. Likud would win 33 places in the 120-seat parliament, up from 19, and right-wing parties in general would fare well, according to the survey by Israel's Dahaf polling institute.

The center-left Labor Party, whose withdrawal from the government precipitated its fall, would be the big loser. Dahaf's polling showed the once dominant party losing seven seats to become a 19-member delegation in parliament.

In fact, part of Likud's assured popularity has to do with Labor's decline. Labor isn't perceived as much of an alternative, Smith said. Associated with a failed peace process and with the policy of making overtures to Arafat, Labor has lost much of its centrist support, while its left wing became disenchanted over the party's long alliance with Sharon and Likud.

For Labor, the next few weeks are less about winning the premiership and more about salvaging the party, which could split over internal differences, analysts here say.

In party primaries to be held Nov. 19, Labor voters will choose their leader and candidate for prime minister from among the current party head, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who just stepped down as Sharon's defense minister; Amram Mitzna, the popular mayor of Israel's northern port city of Haifa; and veteran Labor politician Haim Ramon.

Mitzna is ahead in internal Labor polls but is seen as a leftist who would probably get creamed by the Likud candidate.

The more interesting and potentially nasty battle will be between Sharon and Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud.

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