The irresistible rise of Bibi

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The Independent Online
In the early hours of yesterday he was being written off. "Netanyahu, imprisoned by a sense of his own charisma, fell into a well and caused the collapse of the Likud [party]," wrote one of Israel's better-known newspaper columnists.

By the time that newspaper appeared in print it had all changed. Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu looked set to become the next prime minister of Israel, if only by a whisker. His lead is 20,000 votes out out of 3.9 million cast but the 154,000 votes still to be counted are mostly those of soldiers expected to vote for the right.

Just for a moment, as the first exit polls were announced - giving the lead to Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister - Mr Netanyahu's easy self-confidence evaporated and his face turned white. But he has survived crises before, such as when Leah Rabin, widow of the murdered prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, denounced him after her husband's funeral. There was talk of replacing him as party leader when his rating in the polls fell 20 per cent behind Mr Peres late last year.

Yet there is something unstoppable about this man. In 1993 he appeared on television to admit that he had had an affair; his political opponents were trying to blackmail him by threatening to release a video showing him in a compromising position with his girlfriend.

Yet despite this, despite three marriages, it was the black-hatted ultra- Orthodox Jews who flocked to the polls this week to give him victory. He was damaged by the assassination of Rabin and was accused of rabble- rousing speeches before the murder but he rebounded in the polls after four suicide bombs exploded in February and March in Israel, killing 63 people.

He has had little help in this election. Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO, gave such assistance to his opponent as he could. President Bill Clinton all but campaigned against Mr Netanyahu. The Israeli media regard him with suspicion and distaste. Above all else, his success will cause dismay because nobody knows if he is a committed ideologue or a successful opportunist.

Certainly, his family background is one of ideological commitment. He is the son of Bentzion Netanyahu, an historian whose commitment to extreme right-wing Zionism forced him to leave Israel for a job in the United States. He became a senior diplomat in Washington and New York, famed for his facility on television in Hebrew or English, known for his links to America's conservative right.

What will Mr Netanyahu do now? He will not withdraw from Hebron, or discuss Jerusalem with the Palestinians, as agreed under the Oslo accords. He says he will build more settlements on the West Bank. The peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which began in 1993, are effectively over. He says he will not give up the Golan Heights.

But he is unlikely to do more unless there are more suicide bombs. He will have little difficulty forming a government, because of the success of the right in the Knesset. He will want to restore relations between himself and the US. But the blunt truth is that, as would be the case if Mr Peres had triumphed, Mr Netanyahu will find it difficult to do anything in a country that is so demonstrably split down the middle.

Knife-edge vote, pages 14,15

Irad Malkin, page 19