The race is on and Bibi's busy sweet-talking

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a gesture typical of the man. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, pointed to his bullet-proof vest at a rally of his right-wing Likud party. "Are you all members of Likud?" he asked them. "You bet we are," they roared back. Then he took off the vest and laid it ceremonially on the floor.

His message was simple: no enemies on the right. He hopes to win the election on 17 May by uniting Israel's religious and extreme nationalist voters against the threat from the secular left and the Palestinians. No other politician has his ability to whip up the fears of Israeli voters as they go to the polls.

It worked in the last elections in 1996, when Mr Netanyahu accused the Labour Party of selling out to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and planning to divide Jerusalem. But he won by only 15,000 votes out of 3 million, and this after Islamic militants had killed more than 60 Israelis by suicide bombs.

This time the Israeli leader has a more difficult task. He has to unite the nationalist right behind him as the man who will fight Mr Arafat every step of the way. He needs to frighten religious and ultra-orthodox Israelis with the belief that, whatever his failings, he is better than Labour's secular elite.

Mr Netanyahu's problem is that he starts the election campaign burdened by the legacy of two-and-a-half years in power during which he has earned the distrust of every political party in Israel. He tried to keep two very different balls in the air, covertly assuring the far right that he was against withdrawal from the West Bank under the Oslo accords, while promising the centre that he would not abandon the peace process.

The prime minister succeeded until the Wye accords in October. Prodded by the Americans, he agreed to a limited withdrawal from the West Bank. The nationalist right, believing the West Bank was given by God to the Jews, felt betrayed, and last month they combined with Labour to bring him down.

It will be difficult for Mr Netanyahu to recreate his old coalition, but nobody is writing him off. He is an extraordinarily skilled tactical in-fighter who built his career as a diplomat and politician on articulate and momentarily convincing performances on television. A few suicide bombs in Jerusalem, or Palestinian rioting on the West Bank, and he could be back in the prime minister's office.

The Israeli leader has just had a good week. In the first weeks of the campaign, the right seemed to be dissolving. Three ex-ministers, Dan Meridor, the former finance minister from the moderate right, Benny Begin, whose father, Menachem, was the leader and patron saint of Likud, and David Levy, the former foreign minister, vied with each other in their denunciations of Mr Netanyahu. Mr Meridor accused him of turning "deceit into a norm".

More menacing from Mr Netanyahu's point of view was the possible defection of Yitzhak Mordechai, the defence minister and one of the heavyweights of the cabinet. Even Ariel Sharon, the foreign minister and icon of the right, seemed to be wobbling. Yoel Marcus, a commentator in the daily Haaretz, said that Mr Netanyahu should have checked that none of his present or former cabinet colleagues were in the audience before taking off his bullet-proof vest.

In practice, the threat to the prime minister is proving less dangerous than it appeared. Last week, he had a family dinner with Mr Mordechai. Only Moshe Arens, the Israeli leader's former mentor, will stand against him for the Likud leadership. This may produce bad publicity, but Mr Arens is a gentlemanly figure, long out of politics, who has attracted little heavyweight support.

The same implosion is affecting Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the recently retired Israeli chief of staff, who has put himself forward as a centrist candidate. He says that Mr Netanyahu is "dangerous to Israel" and "must go", adding that Israelis are "smiling less". But Mr Lipkin-Shahak has left it unclear what he would do to make them smile more. He has enough support to force the election for the prime minister (separate in Israel from the parliamentary election for the Knesset) into a second round on 1 June, but already his effort to create a strong centre force in Israeli politics is running out of steam.

This leaves Mr Netanyahu facing Ehud Barak, the Labour Party leader, who has troubles of his own. A former chief of staff of the Israeli army, he was catapulted into the Labour leadership after the party lost the election in 1996. Resented by many of its leading figures, he has made heavy weather of creating party unity. At the Labour party convention last week he had to drop his plan to nominate personally top places in the Labour party list for the Knesset elections.

Opinion polls show Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak neck and neck in a final run-off. This is not surprising. Israel is split down the middle, not so much by the divide between left and right as between secular and religious. In 1996 the prime ministerial election was almost a dead heat. In the election in 1992 the so-called right got more votes than the left, but was two seats short of a majority in the Knesset because small right-wing parties siphoned off votes.

It is this which makes the results of the election so incalculable. Can Mr Netanyahu, after signing but not implementing the Wye agreement, rely on the far right as he once did? Will the Russian immigrants support him as they did last time? Will enough centrist voters decide that he really does not want to implement Oslo? Do working-class Israelis originating in the Middle East feel that he has done enough to provide them with jobs and housing?

Negotiations with the Palestinians are theoretically on hold for upwards of six months. Experience shows that they are unlikely to be passive spectators in a prolonged Israeli election campaign: as in 1996, they may determine its outcome. Whatever happens, bullet-proof vests are unlikely to go out of fashion.