Netanyahu at peace

Resignation: No longer an issue bedeviling Israeli politics, he remains formidable critic of peace process.

June 03, 1999

BENJAMIN Netanyahu is leaving Israeli politics as stormily as he entered. His departure from the Knesset, as well as from the leadership of Likud, gives that party a chance to recover from its election disaster. Much remains to argue about in coming months, but Mr. Netanyahu won't be the issue.

No politician is washed up at 49, though.

Mr. Netanyahu won't be far away. If events sour under the prime ministry of Ehud Barak, with security compromised or terrorism renewed, Mr. Netanyahu will retain told-you-so appeal.

Mr. Netanyahu took control of Likud in 1993 after an election debacle and rebuilt it with American know-how and Israeli credentials. Public anxieties over Prime Minister Shimon Peres after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin allowed Mr. Netanyahu to win the 1996 election by an eyelash.

In power, he has been a destructive force within Israeli society as well as in relations with neighbors. A secularist, he promoted theocracy. European-descended, he ridiculed Israelis of similar ancestry. He denounced the peace process, promised to honor it and then brought it to a standstill. In the end, he had everyone angry at everyone else, but mostly at him.

Mr. Netanyahu will now follow a long line of former Israeli leaders on the book writing and U.S. lecture circuits. Young, vigorous, articulate and intelligent, he will remain a formidable obstacle to Mr. Barak. Any peace agreement or concession the new Israeli government makes must withstand Mr. Netanyahu's scrutiny before Israeli public opinion.

Likud's comeback is not assured under its interim leader, Ariel Sharon, himself a divisive figure. The Labor Party's challenge under Mr. Barak is to attract the Israelis who welcomed Mr. Netanyahu as a savior in 1996 only to discard him three years later.

Mr. Netanyahu may be gone from the political stage, once he gives up the caretaker prime ministry, but he will not allow himself to be forgotten.

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