September/October 2000

Waiting for Netanyahu

by Neill Lochery - October 31, 2000

The former PM is by far the most popular Israeli politician

B. Netanyahu Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's former prime minister, is back. In the past month, although he has given only a handful of interviews, his is the name on everyone's lips in Israel. Love him or loathe him, his very presence in the background played an important role in determining how the events of the past month have unfolded. The decision by Ariel Sharon, the Opposition leader, to take a walk in Jerusalem came the morning after Mr. Netanyahu escaped being indicted by Israel's Attorney-General on questions related to work done on his home. The Attorney-General's decision was seen by many as opening the road for Mr. Netanyahu to return to the political fray.

Clearly, Mr. Sharon's morning stroll was a crude attempt to take the media limelight away from his right-wing rival. Mr. Sharon's problems are twofold: First, he is the strongest candidate of the right (except for Mr. Netanyahu) but, in all probability, stands no chance of beating Ehud Barak, the Prime Minister, or any other centre-left candidate in national elections. Second, he stands little chance of beating Mr. Netanyahu for the leadership of the Likud party, should the latter decide to run. Unlike Mr. Sharon, Mr. Netanyahu is between 15 to 18 points ahead of Mr. Barak in the polls, and though not even a candidate, he is the most popular Israeli leader by some distance.

The ongoing attempts by Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharon to form a national unity government reflect their mutual interest in blocking the return of Mr. Netanyahu. Such a government would hope to stabilize the political situation in Israel and continue until 2003, when the political atmosphere in Israel may be very different from today.

In the short term, both leaders need to avoid elections against Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Sharon in the Likud and Mr. Barak in the country as a whole. Talk of a unity government to deal with the present crisis is mistaken. Israel has fought its last two major wars (Yom Kippur, 1973 and, Lebanon, 1982) with narrow-based coalitions in place.

Mr. Netanyahu's presence has been felt in the failure to date to form a unity government. His political antenna are second to none in Israel and he quickly became aware of the consequences of such a government for himself. Hence, last week, in the middle of a trip to Moscow, he picked up his mobile phone and called Israel Radio to say he would oppose the formation of a unity government in the Likud Central Committee. His pressure has forced Mr. Sharon to include the question of a veto on security issues, something Mr. Barak cannot swallow.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, is no fool -- unity governments are highly popular with the Israeli electorate at the time of crisis, and so he stated he supported the Likud joining an emergency government, but one with a limited time span (four months) and with elections to follow. Mr. Barak, however, doesn't need the Likud for this; he can call an election today that would take place in the spring and remain a caretaker government until then.

With Mr. Netanyahu's return to centre stage, there is a clear need to assess who he is in 2000, and where he stands on the peace process. Regarding the former, Mr. Netanyahu still sees himself as head of the coalition of minorities in Israel (political, academic and economic) that are very much a product of the revisionist movement. One of the central themes of the last election was the notion of "us and them" - "us" being the labour-led establishment and "them" the Netanyahu-led rabble -- as one Israeli comic defined them.

This basic division still exists in Israel and Mr. Netanyahu remains the figurehead leader of "them." To win an Israeli election, Mr. Netanyahu will have to court the 100,000 swing voters who determine the outcome of elections. Of this group, the most important sectors are the Sephardic Jews and the Russian immigrants. It was no coincidence that Mr. Netanyahu was in Russia last week.

In terms of the peace process -- do not say this too loudly -- many past critics of Mr. Netanyahu are now saying it was just as well he slowed the process down, and sought better compliance by the Palestinians to the terms of the Oslo accords. From an Israeli perspective, areas where he was seen as correct include refusing an additional troop redeployment and calling for Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to task about the number of armed Palestinian policemen.

In 2000, the differences between Mr. Barak and Mr. Netanyahu on the peace process remain small. Both would return the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a peace agreement. On the Palestinian track, Mr. Netanyahu was already talking to Palestinians about Jerusalem. However, the major difference is Mr. Netanyahu may be able to deliver a broader consensus of support for a peace deal than Mr. Barak. Israelis like strong leaders and Mr. Netanyahu talks tough, but tends to act in a more pragmatic manner. In addition, Israel needs his famed media skills more than ever.

For Israel, he may just be the right man in the right place at the right time.

©The National Post

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