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Netanyahu's star begins to wane.

A year can certainly be a Along time in politics. Twelve months ago, Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu was riding high in the opinion polls. The man who replaced Yitzhak Shamir as party leader in the aftermath of its 1992 election defeat was enjoying a surge of popularity as Prime Minister Rabin's position declined on the back of the faltering peace process.

Now, with the successful conclusion of the Oslo 2 agreement with Yasser Arafat and the tragic assassination of Rabin, the old fault lines in the Likud and the criticisms of its telegenic leader are beginning to reappear. And with Shimon Peres establishing himself in a strong position for the elections, including the direct vote for the prime minister, which are due later this year, some are beginning to question whether Bibi's days are numbered.

Although last year's Islamic fundamentalist suicide bomb attacks gave Bibi a temporary fillip, many believe that he never fully recovered from the Israel-PLO rapprochement which led to the Oslo accord in 1993. Says former Washington Post bureau chief Glenn Frankel, "the right offered no coherent alternative to Rabin's peace strategy." Leslie Susser, of the Jerusalem Report magazines agrees. "Netanyahu, caught up in the maelstrom of major historical change, seemed unable to project a coherent alternative. He vacillated between total rejection of the peace deal and conditional acceptance, between commitment to honour the Rabin government's undertakings and promises to scrap them." Adds senior Likud member Meir Sheetrit, "his big mistake was his unmitigated hawkishness on the peace deal. That's when his political star began to wane. The country had moved to the left and Netanyahu came across not as the reasonable, western-educated man he purports to be, but as an irrational fanatic."

Netanyahu is "the master of the sound bite," says leading Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi, who dismisses him as "armed with studied charm and rehearsed lines." But underneath the smooth talking cliches - dubbed "Bibibluff" by his chief Likud adversary, former Foreign Minister David Levy - lies a hardline ideology. "Although Netanyahu is an apostle of the politics of modernity, he also worshipped at the altar of the seige," says Frankel. He sees the Middle East as still being fixed in the mentality of the Cold War, a Hobbesian world where it is the survival of the fittest and true peace is impossible.

Bibi remains inextricably bound to the concept of Greater Israel and it is a belief that he has clung to, even at the expense of political popularity. He believes that Jordan is Palestine and there is no need for another Palestinian state. "There is a state across the Jordan river which is a predominantly Palestinian state," he told one interviewer.

The rise of Benjamin Netanyahu to the highest echelons of the Likud has indeed been rapid. It was his elder brother, Yoni, who first came to the fore, leading and dying in the daring Entebbe hostage rescue mission. Bibi, meanwhile, served as an accomplished commando officer in the Israeli army. From there, he went to the United States and graduated from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in architecture, before returning to Israel to work as a sales director for a furniture company.

He was then plucked from relative obscurity to a plum job at Israel's Washington embassy. From there, he moved to New York, where he served as the country's ambassador to the United Nations. It was during this time that he established himself as a master of the soundbite and the television interview, his good looks winning him the hearts and minds of many Americans.

A job in Yitzhak Shamir's administration, as a deputy minister, brought him back to his native country. During that period, his involvement in the Madrid peace conference brought him international recognition, after a masterly performance to an audience of hostile Arab journalists at a press conference. Then, with the financial backing of some American supporters, he was able to pull off a coup by topping an internal poll for the party's list of candidates for the forthcoming general election.

In the aftermath of the Likud's 1992 election defeat to Rabin's resurgent Labour Party, Netanyahu seized the initiative. Whilst the "old guard" party leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and others retreated to fick their wounds, Bibi went on the offensive. Appearing at party rallies across the country, he caught the mood of disenchanted Likud supporters by spearheading calls for a system of primaries to elect a new leader. He started up a momentum which continued to gather speed at an unstoppable pace until he won the poll later that year.

Some were quick to warn that the Israeli right was being foolish placing its trust in a candidate which it hardly knew. "It's one thing to have popular appeal, but quite another to have the makings of a good Prime Minister," sniped fellow contender Beni Begin, son of former prime minister Menachem Begin. Leading commentator Ze'ev Chafets, agreed, noting that "Israel has always had its fair share of ambitious politicians, but there has never been anyone so publicly, nakedly ambitious as Netanyahu." Whilst praising Bibi for his skills as both an orator and politician, Chafets put a question mark over what he called the "character issue".

It was the character issue which was to come to the fore in the leadership contest. In the midst of the campaign, Bibi dropped a bombshell. He voluntarily went on television and confessed to cheating on his third wife Sarah. He then accused "a major Likud personality" - widely assumed to be David Levy, the other main contender - of being behind attempts to blackmail him into quitting the race. Levy was incensed and has been in a bitter feud with Netanyahu ever since, finally bolting the Likud to set up his own party last year.

The whole episode cast a question mark over Bibi's character and his judgement, although it came too late to stop him from winning the leadership ballot with 52% of the vote. Another rival former defence minister Ariel Sharon - who was the architect behind Israel's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1992 - caught the mood when he asked how anyone could trust "a man who got caught with his pants down, in more ways than one, but put the blame on others."

Whilst Labour gloated and his rivals criticised, Bibi attempted to unite his fragmented and demoralised party and moved to cement his position as its new leader. One of his first moves was to push for the introduction of a new party constitution. Its stipulation that three quarters of the 3,600-member central committee would need to support a fresh leadership vote this decade is seen by some as guaranteeing Bibi's position, at least until the year 2000.

At the same time, he also sought to move the Likud to the right, towards a hawkish line that accorded more with his own views. He surrounded himself with a coterie who share his hardline approach, such as Avi Kalstein, formerly of the smaller Tsomet party, which advocates an even more uncompromising position than the Likud, and Tsachi Hanegbi. Hanegbi, whose mother led the ultra-nationalist Techiya party, has a history of political radicalism. In the 1970s, for instance, he and several friends were fined for using martial arts weapons to confront Arab students. More recently, he proposed that Israel should use assault helicopters to fire on the mourners at the funerals of Hamas suicide bombers.

This strident nationalism has served to alienate many of the Likud's more liberal supporters. Former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, who is widely touted as the man who could replace Netanyahu, made an implicit attack last year when he declared, "the land of Israel is the main foundation of the Likud, but the Likud is not based only on this."

In a further indication of the lunge to the right, Rehavam Ze'evi, leader of the extremist Moledet party - which advocates the `transfer' of Israel's Arab population - declared, "there is a dynamic in working together that could lead to Moledet joining the Likud as an ideological division within the larger part." Whilst Netanyahu is certainly no supporter of the concept of `transfer', it is an indication of perhaps how hawkish the party has become.

This hardline stance has also found a declining resonance with secular nationalists in Israel, who previously formed the bedrock of the party's support. Increasingly, the audiences at demonstrations against the peace process were drawn from the ranks of the settler and religious movements, as well as from the darker elements of the neo-fascist Kahanist fringe. As one settler leader declared after one rally, "Where's the Likud?" As the tone of Netanyahu's speeches became more intemperate and the demonstrators more vengeful, other senior Likud figures, such as Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, chose to stay away.

Whilst professing his commitment to democracy, Netanyahu is seen by many as an accomplice in the evolution of the climate of hate which led Yigal Amir to pull the trigger and murder Prime Minister Rabin in November 1995. "The assassination is a result of incitement of the Likud and the right. The responsibility lies with the leaders," says Health Minister Ephraim Sneh, "from Netanyahu on down."

By speaking at rallies when placards were displayed depicting Rabin as an SS officer or where chants of "Rabin is a traitor" were heard, or by questioning the Government's legitimacy due to its reliance on the support of Arab members of parliament, Bibi angered many. His critics cite other examples of mistakes that he has made: * Once elected, Bibi promised, but failed, to bring the coalition down and force early elections. * He has failed to unify the party, as witnessed by Levy's decision to leave, with others rumoured to follow. * His determination to have the entire opposition boycott the parliamentary vote on the 1993 Oslo agreement was widely viewed as foolish. * In May 1994 he allowed the dour Ya'acov Shamai to be the party's candidate in leadership elections for the influential Histadrut labour federation.

"Netanyahu is a man of the past," says Ze'ev Chafets. "He has become a second rate politician, a drab figure offering little more than cliche-ridden rhetoric and hesitant, unimaginative leadership. Ever since Oslo, Bibi has been lost and the public knows it."

In the elections due later this year, Israelis will, for the first time, vote directly for their Prime Minister. The legacy of Bibi's battles with other prominent figures in the Likud and on the right is that there will be several candidates vying for the nationalist vote. Netanyahu will have to fight against Levy, Ariel Sharon and former Chief of Staff Raful Eitan. The left, meanwhile, looks as if it will be behind Shimon Peres.

As Netanyahu aide Danny Naveh points out, "there could be two rounds of voting, as no one candidate would get the required 51% in the first. And in the one-on-one run off, Netanyahu would win." This presupposes two things, of course. The first is that the country will not unite behind Shimon Peres, in the way that opinion polls show it currently does. The second is that Bibi will be the leading hawkish candidate after the first round of voting, which is far from certain.

Given the dissatisfaction expressed by many Likud members, it is still possible that Bibi will not be the party's candidate. Many in the Likud believe that Bibi is not up to it," says Ehud Ya'ari, a leading commentator with Israel television. He adds, "there is a combination of two factors which could still unseat him before the elections. The first is if the opinion polls continue to show Peres clearly ahead. The second is if murmurs come from Likud branches across the country, calling for him to step down."

If that is the case, then Dan Meridor may emerge as Netanyahu's successor. The more liberal Meridor, whose father was also a Knesset member, does not seem,to possess the ruthless streak that perhaps is required for him to unseat Bibi. He would need to be pushed hard to launch a campaign to unseat the incumbent leader. But if defeat is staring his party in the face. Meridor might be persuaded.
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Title Annotation:Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu
Author:Album, Andrew
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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