Glib hard-liner runs for Israel's top post Young Likud leader draws ahead of Peres in major opinion poll

March 10, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Twelve years ago a glib young man with a flair for quotable slogans was appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, just as Shimon Peres began his first term as prime minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu now is poised to try to end the longtime ambitions of Mr. Peres by wresting from him the post of premier.

A major public opinion poll Friday showed Mr. Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud bloc, three percentage points ahead of Mr. Peres in the wake of the series of suicide bombings that killed 60 people in Israel.

"People are getting their bearings back," said Likud stalwart Zalman Shoval.

Four months ago, after Mr. Peres took the reins of government and the Labor Party from the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, Mr. Netanyahu trailed by a seemingly hopeless 15 points.

Now, the national election May 29 seems likely to be yet another contest decided by the barest of margins.

The election pits an old warhorse -- Mr. Peres is 72 -- against 46-year-old Mr. Netanyahu, a telegenic media star.

It matches the last of the old guard from Israel's War of Independence against the impatient younger generation.

And it will be a contest of philosophy, in which Israelis will be asked to chose how they wish to live with the Palestinians with whom they share this land.

"One of the problems with this government is that it lost touch with reality. It had false images of a 'New Middle East' which does not exist," Mr. Netanyahu said Friday, mocking a favored term of Mr. Peres.

The suicide bombings of the past two weeks have rocked Israelis, turning liberals into hard-liners.

This isn't working, they say. Maybe Mr. Netanyahu's approach would not work, either, but it cannot be worse, they say.

"Terror favors Netanyahu," complained Ori Orr, a Labor Knesset member. "If you have no responsibility, like Netanyahu, you can say you will solve the problem immediately. It's nonsense."

Mr. Netanyahu -- universally known here as "Bibi" -- is accustomed to this charge. His rise in politics has been hitched to public revulsion of violence.

His first public role was to publish a book and open an institute on international terrorism in memory of his brother, a soldier killed in the 1976 Entebbe raid on a hijacked airplane.

Mr. Netanyahu served in the same elite combat unit as his brother. He used to mention that service often to blunt suspicions that he is "not Israeli enough."

He was born in Tel Aviv to a wealthy family with extreme right-wing politics. His family moved to the United States when he was a teen-ager. He spent more than 15 years there in different periods.

He speaks American English and boasts of having imported American-style politics to Israel. He has mastered the short, pithy "sound bite" for interviews, a contrast to the barnacled rhetoric Israelis often get from the gruff politicians who have long run the country.

Moshe Arens, Israel's ambassador to the United States in 1982, recognized the talent and recruited Mr. Netanyahu for a post in Washington. He was working as a sales manager in a furniture company at the time.

But, like Mr. Arens, he was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His course was set. He became the voice for Israel's policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a handsome, square-jawed favorite on the Jewish fund-raising circuit and the television news shows.

His appeal was such that Mr. Peres, then serving a rotating premiership under a unity government, approved Mr. Netanyahu's appointment as ambassador to the United Nations in 1984.

Mr. Netanyahu's line was a hard line. Palestinian opponents should be deported, he said, stone-throwers shot, reporters banned from occupied territories.

And it was articulate. He became a familiar spokesman for Israel in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. During a live television interview, he donned a gas mask in a Scud attack, a dramatic touch.

After the Labor Party ousted Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, Mr. Netanyahu took over a Likud that was dispirited, disorganized and bankrupt. He reorganized and revitalized the party, methodically defeating a cast of rivals, and began gnawing at the peace process and the popularity of Mr. Rabin.

It worked -- for a time. Mr. Netanyahu was ahead in the polls when Mr. Rabin was assassinated Nov. 4.

But critics, including Mr. Rabin's widow, Leah. blamed the Likud chief for having led demonstrations in which posters called Mr. Rabin a murderer and a traitor -- for, they say, having helped "set the tone" for the killing,

"Thankfully, that period is over," Mr. Netanyahu said recently of the blame heaped on him and the right wing.

"We do not control the lunatic fringe. No one does."

But the lesson was not lost on him. Since the assassination, Mr. Netanyahu has strictly curbed his rhetoric. During the recent spate of terrorist bombings, he called for unity with the government, a posture that won him considerable support.

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