Netanyahu's fall: From impregnable to reviled in just a few short weeks A prime minister abandoned by his colleagues is now rejected by voters

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The Independent Online
STALL-HOLDERS in Mahane Yehuda fruit vegetable market, a right- wing bastion in Jerusalem, were beginning to realise yesterday that Benjamin Netanyahu, their hero and Prime Minister of Israel for three years, is almost certainly going to lose today's election.

Just before mid-day, Yitzhak Mordechai, the former Defence Minister who leads the Centre Party, pulled out of the race. This boosts the chances of Ehud Barak, the Labour Party leader, winning the election in the first round. "Mordechai is not a man, he's a rat!" shouted one stall-holder angrily, spitting on the ground in contempt.

Mr Netanyahu and his followers seem stunned by the sudden disintegration of his campaign. Only six months ago his position appeared impregnable against a floundering opposition. Shemton Nezer, a 60-year-old engineer, said he still believed the polls, which show Mr Barak leading Mr Netanyahu by 54 to 46 per cent, were falsified by the press. But he admitted that many of the one million Russian Jewish immigrants were deserting the prime minister they voted for in the last election. He said: "The Russians always go where they can get power."

Jerusalem is further to the right and more religious than other Israeli cities, but even here many Israelis say they feel disenchanted with Mr Netanyahu's paranoid personal style and strong links to the ultra-orthodox. Yitzhak Alalouf, making up bouquets of carnations in his flower shop, said he was going to vote for Mr Barak "because maybe he won't need the religious parties in his government. The ultra-orthodox won't let me drive my car on Shabbat (the Sabbath), though its none of their business what I do".

This anti-clerical trend,strongest among the Russians, is an unexpected development in the election. Boris, a retired engineer, said: "I'm a religious person. I'll vote for the far right. But there will be no change for the better here until the ultra-orthodox are curbed. They are exempt from the army, and two of my sons have fought in Lebanon."

Israelis who voted for Mr Netanyahu, universally known as Bibi, in the last election in 1996 are also put off by his devious personality. "I'd like to vote for him," said Efrat Netzer, a psychologist. "But he's not honest and he always fights with his friends." Joseph, sitting in a nearby shopfront, felt so strongly about this that he had flown from Los Angeles to vote for Mr Barak. He said: "Bibi isn't really a politician in the traditional sense. He wants to keep all power in his own hands."

Mr Netanyahu has always had a messianic strain in his character, seeing himself as fighting almost alone for the salvation of Israel. He is deeply suspicious, viewing friends and allies as potential rivals.

During Mr Netanyahu's three years in office there has been an extraordinary exodus of ministers from his cabinet , all bitterly attacking him. Last to go was Yitzhak Mordechai, his popular Defence Minister who left in January denouncing Mr Netanyahu, to join the Centre Party, with sole aim of bringing down Mr Netanyahu. Yesterday he threw his support to Mr Barak.

But Moshe Rahanim, one of the leaders of Mahane Yehuda market, who sells teddy bears from a stall,said: "The media all hate Bibi. They are frightened of him. It doesn't matter if we have to live on bread and onions. He has given us security,which we didn't have before."

Few voters even mentioned negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, or the threat of suicide bombers, though these were the two main issues in the 1996 election. Mr Netanyahu made a desperate effort in the last weeks of the campaign to revive them by threatening to occupy Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in Jerusalem. He was stopped by the High Court.

The strangest aspect of the election campaign is the speed with whichMr Netanyahu's political support has collapsed. As recently as early March a distinguished Israeli academic was ticking off the reasons why Mr Barak was unelectable. It was not merely that he was bad on television and unable to unify the Labour party leadership. He was also a member of the Ashkenazi (Jews from eastern and central Europe) elite unpopular with the Sephardi (Jews from the Middle East), and the Labour party had won only a single election since 1973.

There was always a sense among Mr Netanyahu's many enemies that he was an elemental force of nature, who would also win. Only in the last few weeks has it become clear how unpopular he is among Israelis as a whole. Mr Barak is not much loved but he is not hated like Mr Netanyahu. Some 32 per cent of Israelis say they would feel very bad if the prime minister was re-elected. Only 12 per cent feel the same way about the Labour leader.

Very late in the day the majority of Israelis appear to have woken up to the fact that Mr Netanyahu is a very strange man. He surrounded himself with supporters, many of whom were under almost permanent police investigation for corruption. Political opponents were treated as potential traitors. He had been blamed for creating the atmosphere which led to the 1995 assasination of Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli prime minister. He denied this. Last week it was discovered that a rabbi who is a close friend of Mr Netanyahu had compared Mr Rabin to Hitler and called for his death.

Mr Netanyahu, 49, comes from an academic far-right family and was largely educated in the US. His hero brother Jonathan was killed on the raid on Entebbe. He himself was in an elite military unit in Israel led by Mr Barak. He was also a very skilled propagandist, working in the Israeli embassy in Washington then as Israeli ambassador to the UN.

Mr Netanyahu is articulate and convincing on television and ruthless in pursuit of an objective. He swiftly revived the Likud Party after he took it over in the wake of its election defeat in 1992, welding an alliance of those who felt marginalised by the Israeli elite: the ultra-orthodox, religious nationalists, settlers, Russians and Sephardi.

When he won the election over Shimon Peres, the Labour leader, foreign diplomats asked if he would turn out an ideologue or a pragmatist. The answer seemed to be that he was as ideological as he dared to be, but had a strong sense of what he could get away with. He stalled over the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, but did not reverse them. He gave up part of Hebron. At the Wye Plantation in Maryland last year he grudgingly agreed to give up part of the West Bank.

If Mr Netanyahu looks mystified it is because he feels he delivered on his promise. He got maximum security from the Palestinians for minimum concessions. Ironically, that also removed the Palestinian issue from the electoral agenda. Without an external threat his coalition crumbled. Russians fought Sephardi. Secular Jews denounced the ultra- orthodox. His personal failings became a central issue, and he is fighting for his political life.