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Netanyahu Angles for Yet Another Comeback

Israel's former prime minister, lagging in the run-up to a national election, leads a party whose prospects, like his own, have turned.

March 18, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

TEL HAI, Israel — Benjamin Netanyahu was in his element: a dramatic, wind-whipped overlook at Israel's northern tip, a onetime fortress where 86 years ago, a storied band of beleaguered Jewish pioneers fought and died at the hands of Arab attackers.

Here in Tel Hai, a Zionist touchstone, the 56-year-old candidate for prime minister paid his respects to the fallen -- and symbolically linked their lonely struggle to his own.

"Who is going to act against Hamas, for the safety of our children?" he thundered, referring to the Islamist group that swept to victory in January's Palestinian elections. "Who is going to do it? We're talking about our country!"

It wasn't subtle, but neither is Netanyahu's style. And even if it were, subtlety is a luxury he could ill afford these days.

Heading into a March 28 parliamentary election, the onetime boy wonder of Israeli politics leads a party that once dominated the electoral landscape, but now is lagging far behind.

There is no small irony in this turn of events. Netanyahu devoted most of the last three years to trying to wrest control of the conservative Likud Party from his archrival, Ariel Sharon. He achieved that ambition at last, but only after Sharon quit Likud, leaving it a shriveled husk. The centrist Kadima party that Sharon started -- now led by Ehud Olmert, who took over after Sharon suffered a massive stroke -- is forecast to win at least twice as many seats as Likud.

Still, many observers believe it would be foolish to count out Netanyahu, a charismatic but divisive politician whose career has been marked by dramatic reversals of fortune.

In the 1996 campaign, six months after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu at one point trailed the dovish Shimon Peres by 20 percentage points. Then Israel was rocked by a devastating series of Palestinian bombings. The attacks killed 67 people in 13 days. Netanyahu emerged the victor by a razor-thin margin. At the age of 46, the U.S.-educated, media-savvy Netanyahu, universally known by his nickname Bibi, became the country's youngest prime minister.

A scant three years later, irate Israeli voters booted him out of office by a humiliatingly large margin.

When Netanyahu reentered politics in 2001 after a hiatus to lick his wounds, he presumed that the aging Sharon would present little obstacle to his claim on the Likud leadership. Instead, the old ex-general went on to become one of the most popular leaders in modern Israeli political history, with his statesmanship likened to such towering figures as David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister.

Having assumed the leadership of Israel's hard right at a time when the country is embracing a more centrist view, Netanyahu now finds himself struggling to broaden his appeal.

"Likud has not been able to follow the swing in Israeli public opinion," said political scientist Itzhak Galnoor of Hebrew University. "The public generally agrees with the partitioning of the biblical Land of Israel, and the Likud leadership remains stuck in its previous position."

Likud's platform opposes the creation of a Palestinian state -- something most Israelis now accept as inevitable.

Netanyahu strategists express frustration that voters apparently are giving little weight to his impressive qualifications.

The Israeli economy was a shambles when he took over as finance minister in 2003, but was booming when his tenure ended. Even critics agreed the turnaround was largely due to the rigorous economic reforms Netanyahu championed, though many complained his policies caused hardship to the poor and elderly.

And after years spent in the shadow of one ex-general after another, Netanyahu is finally in a race in which his military credentials, including a stint in the ultra-elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal, are far more solid than those of either of his main opponents, Olmert and Peretz.

Instead, a viewer of the political ads that flicker across the country's TV screens every night might be forgiven for believing Netanyahu was the electoral contest's dominant figure and his character the chief issue.

Kadima has devoted considerable resources to skewering him, playing to the perception that Netanyahu is manipulative and insincere. One much-discussed Kadima ad, apparently aimed at making Netanyahu appear untrustworthy, features nothing but footage of him giving a speech while his eyes continually shift back and forth.

The Israeli electorate's relationship with Netanyahu is a complicated one. He is simultaneously admired and reviled for his smooth public persona, widely remembered for a made-for-television moment during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which he suavely donned a gas mask while speaking live on CNN in his perfect colloquial American English.

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