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Smooth talker on the right.

In 1976, the name Netanyahu was on the lips of every Israeli citizen and indelibly etched in the minds of millions around the world. Israel had defied Idi Amin and launched a daring rescue operation at Entebbe Airport. The operation was led by army commander, Yonni Netanyahu, who was killed in the operation.

Seventeen years on, the name Netanyahu is once again in the public eye. In March this year, Yonni's younger brother Benjamin (known to all as "Bibi"), succeeded the former ousted prime minister Yitzhak Shamir as leader of the Likud party. In a campaign that took the country by storm, Bibi secured a huge 52% of the vote in the party's elections for the leadership.

Netanyahu's rise to the top of the Likud party has been meteoric by any standards. If all goes according to his plans, he will be Israel's next prime minister, a position of immense power for a man about whom relatively little is known. For Bibi has not served the grinding apprenticeship endured by the majority of Israeli politicians and he still remains a relatively unknown quantity.

In 1982 he was plucked from obscurity to serve as Israel's consul general in Washington. According to some, this was as a result of a personal friendship between Israel's ambassador to the United States and Bibi's father. After a stint as Israel's representative at the United Nations, he arrived on the domestic Israeli political scene, astounding the pundits in 1988 when he topped an internal Likud poll for the party's list for the forthcoming elections. He entered the Knesset that year and served in Yitzhak Shamir's government until it was voted out of office in 1992.

It was this defeat which prompted Shamir's resignation and the leadership elections which Netanyahu won. During the campaign Bibi and Israel were rocked by a sex-scandal that, quite predictably, was dubbed "Bibigate". In the midst of the campaign, thrice-married Netanyahu appeared on television and dropped a bombshell. He accused "criminals" in the camp of "a major Likud personality" - generally assumed to be the former foreign minister, David Levy - of attempting to blackmail him with a video cassette of an extra-marital affair. The accusations were investigated by the police but no evidence was uncovered. The "Bibigate" file may be closed at police headquarters but its effects will linger on.

The affair has left a question-mark hanging over Netanyahu - not only over his personal conduct as a result of his marital improprieties but also over his judgement and credibility. As the former defence minister, Ariel Sharon, has noted, a man who can fabricate a story that never existed is capable of anything.

Not surprisingly, it has left David Levy, the politician who has delivered the Sephardi vote to Likud in successive elections, fuming with rage. Levy is still refusing to co-operate with the new party leader and the apology which he demanded has not been forthcoming.

A number of options are available to Levy, aside from adhering to the requests of Netanyahu's camp that he swallow his pride and fall into line. Rumours have repeatedly been circulated in the Israeli press that Levy is considering bolting from the Likud to form a new party. Yitzhak Rabin, the current prime minister, would no doubt welcome him into his government with open arms. Not only would it bolster his majority and weaken the power of minority parties in his coalition but it would also make any peace agreement a great deal easier to sell to the Israeli electorate.

Levy has one other avenue to pursue if he wants revenge. Although Netanyahu has been elected party leader, this does not automatically make him the Likud's candidate in 1996, when the next elections are due. (Under a new system, Israel's prime minister will be directly elected at future polls) Levy may well stand against Netanyahu when the Likud votes for its candidate, and will be joined by Benny Begin - son of the late Menachem Begin - and Ariel Sharon, who has made no secret of his intention to run.

Before Netanyahu faces that fight, there are a number of more pressing concerns with which he must deal. Critically important, he must set about re-unifying his fractured party and removing the burden of a cripphng $16m debt. Likud is ridden with recriminations resulting from electoral defeat which have been compounded by the divisive leadership campaign and the "Bibigate" saga.

Netanyahu has moved quickly to try and shore up party morale and soothe the feelings of many of his adversaries within Likud. The beleaguered Rabin government has felt the results of Bibi's media talents and Likud has been boosted by recent opinions polls which show it running strongly against Labour.

Netanyahu has also sought to co-ordinate and unify the actions of the various right-wing groups in the Knesset. He chairs a weekly meeting of the heads of the parties to co-ordinate tactics. Whilst the formation of this caucus is in itself an achievement in the factional world of right-wing Israeli politics, it has not been sufficient to curb the back-biting and sniping which continues.

The Likud leader still has to establish himself in the eyes of the Israeli electorate as a credible politician. His performances on CNN and other television broadcasts around the world have set him up as the "king of the soundbite". Many have questioned whether any substance lies behind the smooth talking and clever phrases - "Bibibluff" according to the disgruntled Levy.

His recently published polemic A Place Among the Nations helps answer the question. In some ways, the book can be seen as a shallow propaganda exercise, a sop to the American Jewish community. Bibi's view of Israel's history, its conflicts with the Arab states and the Palestinians is very much a black and white one. That said, he does systematically disprove many of the falsehoods and historical inaccuracies that have been propagated in recent years in a lucid and effective way.

More important, the book establishes Netanyahu as a new kind of right-wing Israeli politician. He believes neither in the messianic aspects of holding onto the Occupied Territories nor that the world is pitted against the Jews. As shown by the unprecedented press conference which he held for Arab journalists at the Madrid peace talks in 1991, he places great emphasis on the importance of winning the battle for public opinion.

A Place Among the Nations clearly illustrates his implacable opposition to further territorial compromise by Israel. His right-wing backers in Israel and overseas (see box) will ensure that he does not waver from his commitment in this respect. Certainly, one is left with the feeling that Netanyahu is not the man to replicate the vision shown by Menachem Begin when he reached a peace agreement with Anwar Sadat.

Should Netanyahu secure the right to be Likud's candidate for the prime minister's job when Israelis go to the polls in 1996, it is certain that his platform will be uncompromising. His undoubted media talents and hawkish views will make him a formidable opponent. If Rabin survives in power that long and the election is a head-to-head contest between the two, Netanyahu will take full advantage of the contrast in age with the incumbent prime minister, who will be 74 by then and almost 30 years Bibi's senior.

No doubt Likud would be happy if Rabin were to step aside, especially as Labour has a dearth of talented and "electable" young politicians. But Rabin still has one trump card which he could play. Ehud Barak, the brilliant incumbent chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, is highly regarded by many and is a favourite of Rabin. He could comfortably hold his own against the articulate Netanyahu and has a formidable army record - a crucial factor with the security-conscious Israeli electorate.

Whether it will be Bibi versus Barak, or Rabin with Barak as his running partner and heir apparent remains to be seen. But the warnings are clear to all sides in the peace negotiations - a land for peace deal may not be on the table for all that much longer if Netanyahu poses a significant threat to the Rabin administration.

Not his own man?

Benjamin Netanyahu has been dogged by allegations that his rapid political advancement was funded by wealthy and well-connected foreign supporters. The issue will probably continue to cause him arm long after the "Bibigate" scandal is forgotten. It is a story of conspiracy and intrigue, the stuff that political thrillers are made of. And if has severe implications for the integrity and independence of the Likud's new leader.

According to the Jerusalem Report magazine, in the mid- 1980s, "a syndicate of backers - men with money, connections and wide-ranging experience in Israel and the United States - gathered around the rising star" to push and promote him to the top. "Because it was a closely guarded secret, the syndicate was known by insiders as |the group has been behind Bibi's rapid rise to the top, funding and supporting their man.

Israelis are proud of their independence and stubborn in the face of what is perceived as outside interference, even when it comes from friends. The influence of foreigners over Netanyahu is an issue that is likely to resurface well before Israelis next to the polls.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of right-wing Likud, gains attention
Author:Album, Andrew
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Talking for talking's sake.
Next Article:Weapons sanctions aren't working.

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