Can Netanyahu snatch an unlikely victory?

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IT IS an election all about one man: Benjamin Netanyahu. Three years after he became Prime Minister, his personality is the central issue in the most rancorous and divisive campaign in Israel's history.

It is almost over. On Monday, four million Israeli voters will decide if Mr Netanyahu is to stay in office. Polls show his support slipping, but his many enemies are still holding their breath. They do not discount the Prime Minister's will to power or skill in manipulation.

In Israeli politics in the 1990s, Netanyahu plays the same role as Richard Nixon in the US a quarter of a century ago. Both men won office using the rhetoric of the nationalist right, demonising their opponents as unpatriotic if not outright traitors. Like Nixon, Netanyahu is regarded with revulsion by much of the Israeli media, who see him as a liar and demagogue.

In the three years since he became Prime Minister by a whisker in the 1996 election, Netanyahu has shown that he is intelligent and can, on occasions, be pragmatic. He sees himself as the saviour of his country, compelled to battle the blind and naive. Personally, he is an egocentric, lonely and suspicious man. He uses people brutally, discarding former friends and allies.

If Israeli polls are correct, Netanyahu now faces defeat by Ehud Barak, the Labour party leader, either in Monday's election or - if no candidate wins a majority - in a run-off on 1 June. He has failed to focus the campaign on relations with the Palestinians as he did in 1996, when suicide bombers were blowing up buses in the streets of Jerusalem.

It is a strange election because it need not have happened at all. The Prime Minister did not have to go to the polls for another 12 months. But at the end of last year he made a miscalculation. In October, under intense pressure from President Clinton, Netanyahu agreed at the Wye Plantation in Maryland to make a limited withdrawal on the West Bank under the terms of the Oslo Accords.

It was not obvious at the time that this would destroy his government. But in 1996, Netanyahu had made two contradictory promises. He told centrist voters that he would implement a modified Oslo, obtaining better terms for Israel. At the same time, he assured the militants of the extreme right that he would never give up the West Bank, which they believe is the land God gave to the Jews.

When he returned from Maryland Netanyahu could easily have defied his allies on the far right and sold the Wye agreement to the Knesset, relying on votes from the left and centre. Instead he got the worst of both worlds. He suspended the agreement, claiming Palestinian non-compliance. But the settlers on the West Bank were not mollified. They combined - in a move they have since come to regret - with the Labour opposition to bring him down.

Netanyahu risked an election because he thought he could win it. Ehud Barak, former chief of staff, was making a clumsy transition from military to political life. His party was disunited. He was failing to reach beyond the secular, Ashkenazi (Jews from eastern and central Europe) establishment core of his support. But the Prime Minister's position was weaker than it looked. Much of this has to do with his own personality. In his three years in office he has shown a spectacular ability to make enemies. He saw every senior member of his own government as a potential rival. He quarrelled with David Levy, his former foreign minister, and Dan Meridor, his Finance Minister. They formed a Centre Party whose sole aim was to oust Netanyahu.

Four months ago, Yitzhak Mordechai, the popular defence minister, bolted from the cabinet and became the standard bearer of the Centre Party. A former general, Mordechai was also a Sephardi Jew from the Middle East, like so many of Netanyahu's supporters. In the event, his candidacy has foundered, but his initial attacks on the Prime Minister inflicted deep and lasting wounds.

Over the past two months, the coalition of parties which supported the Prime Minister in 1996 has split apart. It was always a curious amalgam of ethnic and religious groups, all of whom felt marginalised by the Labour- orientated elite. It included the ultra-orthodox Jews, living in introverted communities wearing the dress of 19th-century Poland. There were the impoverished working-class Sephardi of the big cities and so-called development towns. Above all, Netanyahu depended on the support of one million Russian Jews, most of whom arrived in Israel in the past decade.

Russians have deserted Netanyahu in droves. For the first time, polls yesterday showed that Barak would get half the Russian vote. If Netanyahu cannot reverse this trend, he will lose the election.

Israel's relations with the Palestinians - the main preoccupation of the outside world - have played little role in the election, but they are profoundly affected by it. Officially the main parties all want to implement Oslo. But Netanyahu has always made clear that he opposed the accords from the beginning and would go along with them only because he had to. To keep as much as possible of the West Bank, he has quarrelled with the US, the Europeans and deep-frozen relations with the rest of the Middle East. Labour will mend these fences by making concessions to the Palestinians.

Not all Palestinians will be overjoyed by a Barak victory. They will no longer benefit from Netanyahu's diplomatic isolation. And the maximum Israel is prepared to offer is still far from the minimum Palestinians will accept.