A very strange bird indeed

Other Israeli leaders had shied away from opening the tunnel in Jerusalem for fear of igniting a powder keg. Benjamin Netanyahu did it, without even warning his own ministers. What sort of man is he? Patrick Cockburn reports
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For Benjamin Netanyahu, it is his first crisis as prime minister of Israel. For many Israelis and Palestinians, the crisis, perhaps the first of many, is about Netanyahu as prime minister.

There is no doubt that he ignited it. By opening an exit to a tunnel from the main Jewish Jewish site in Jerusalem - the Western Wall - in the middle of the Muslim quarter, he was bound to provoke a strong Palestinian reaction.

Twice before, Israeli governments had delayed opening the tunnel because they thought it would provoke violence. But late one night last week, a team of Israeli workers, instructed by Netanyahu and protected by armed guards, opened up a grey steel gate on the side of a stone ramp leading to a Palestinian boys' school in the Via Dolorosa.

For 150 years, governments - Ottoman, British and Israeli - had avoided changing the religious status quo in Jerusalem, but Netanyahu did so without even informing his own chief of staff. "It was the act of a macho teenager," says Yaron Ezrahi, a leading Israeli political scientist.

A hundred days after he took office, Israelis are still mystified by Benjamin Netanyahu's political personality. It is a curious mixture of ideological fanaticism combined with an obsession about presentation.

"It all comes down to public relations, and that alone is important to Netanyahu." writes Nahum Barnea, an Israeli commentator. This trait is combined, he continues, with a determination to concentrate power on himself. "In the tunnel affair, " says Barnea, "this has left a gaping wound in his relations with his defence minister. Officials from the army and the GSS, who played a stabilising, restraining role with the previous government, have been forced to retreat."

Replacing them are a small group of advisers, wholly dependent on Netanyahu and all without experience of government. Hours before the tunnel was opened, Dore Gold, the prime minister's America-born adviser on foreign affairs, was seeing King Hussein in Jordan, though he did not inform him - and may not have been told - about what was about to happen in Jerusalem. The real foreign minister, David Levy, is a sworn enemy of Netanyahu, to whom he refused to speak for the three years up to just before the last election.

The ideological purist in the inner circle around Mr Netanyahu is David Bar-Ilan, a 66-year-old former concert pianist of extreme right-wing views, who was born in Haifa but spent much of his life in America. As editor of the Jerusalem Post, he wrote a weekly column in which he discovered anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiments in such unlikely places as the columns of The New York Times. As the violence ebbed last weekend, he single-handedly increased tension by suggesting that Israel's withdrawal from Hebron be reconsidered. He added that it might be time to think about disarming the 30,000 Palestinian police - something which would inevitably mean a war.

Gold and Bar-Ilan have much in common with Netanyahu himself. Like him they spent much of their lives in the US, and their ideological background is as much American neo-conservatism in the Eighties as it is traditional Zionism.

Their views are unlikely to be moderated by a third important member of the prime minister's inner group, Avigdor Lieberman, director-general of the prime minister's office. An immigrant from Moldavia, he helped to run the campaign that made Netanyahu leader of the Likud party in 1993, and as a reward was made party manager. As he purged all whose loyalty to the new leader he suspected, he made many enemies. The fortnightly Jerusalem Report says: "The kinder souls nicknamed him KGB; the more acerbic called him Rasputin."

From the events of the past week, it would be easy to construct a conspiracy theory in which Netanyahu and his advisers decide to provoke a violent incident to be used as an excuse to end peace talks with the Palestinians. There is doubt about their attitude to the peace process so far. "The Oslo accords were mistaken," said David Bar-Ilan on taking office. "They were bad. The fact is that we inherited them and we have to get out of the bramble bush."

The affair of the tunnel could have been an attempt to get out of the bramble bush. Netanyahu could have frozen the Oslo accords, claiming that the fighting proved that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the former prime ministers, had given Palestinians too much independence. There is no doubt that many Israelis would have believed him.

In fact, Netanyahu has done nothing of the sort. He said he looked forward to the peace talks with the Palestinians being resumed. But he also said that he would not discuss the tunnel at the Washington summit. His officials denied that he would make any concessions to Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO, on withdrawal from Hebron, release of prisoners, or progressive withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank. These were all agreed under the Oslo agreement last year.

In a sense, Netanyahu wants to have his cake and eat it: to make no concessions to Palestinians, but expect them and the Arab states to offer peace and security; to oppose Oslo, but offer no alternative to it.

Increasingly, Israeli commentators look for psychological rather than strictly political reasons for the prime minister's behaviour. Prof Ezrahi says that when Netanyahu was elected, he used to think that he might turn out to be a pragmatist or ideologue. Now he thinks that "his actions are emotional rather than calculated. He is controlled by events rather than controlling them. He could overreact at any time. Here is a leadership failure of colossal dimensions."

Nahum Barnea, comparing Arafat and Netanyahu, likens the Palestinian leader to a sly fox and the Israeli prime minister to "a peacock willing to blind himself by keeping his eyes on his own feathers". Across the Israeli political spectrum there is growing agreement that Benjamin Netanyahu is a very strange bird indeed.

Peculiar though Netanyahu's political personality may be, it is rooted in a personal history which is very distinct. His grandfather, a religious Zionist and distinguished Talmudic scholar, emigrated from Warsaw to Palestine in 1920. His father, Ben-Zion, once secretary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father figure of the Israeli right, became a distinguished historian of the Spanish Inquisition. Feeling discriminated against by Labour governments in Israel, he moved to the US. Benjamin, his second son, was born in 1949, and moved with his father to America at the age of 14. His brother Jonathan was killed commanding the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976, and Benjamin himself had a distinguished, but not spectacular military career.

The basis of his political success was to exploit his Israeli background in the US and his American links in Israel. His rise was spectacular. In 1979, he was a manager of the "Rim" furniture factory, where he was known at his skill for promotions. He had also founded, in memory of his brother, an institute dedicated to fight "international terror". But his real breakthrough came in 1982, when Moshe Arens, then Israel's foreign minister, needed somebody in the Israeli embassy in Washington who could explain the invasion of Lebanon on American television. Within two years he was Israel's ambassador to the UN, a post in which he was so frequently on television that a poll in the US showed that many Americans believed that he was their ambassador. His UN speeches were also highly publicised in Israeli.

It was in America that Netanyahu first encountered advisers such as Dore Gold and a cadre of loyalists. They helped him to enter the Knesset and win the party leadership in 1993. He was also extremely well-financed by wealthy right-wing American Jews. Labour party leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin despised him, but also tended to under-estimate him.

He was as ambitious and unrelenting as any American politician. In a single television debate before the general election in May, he crushed Shimon Peres by endless repeating, in the wake of the suicide bombs planted by Hamas, the Islamic militants, that Israeli children no longer dared to board a bus. He promised "peace with security", and enough Israelis believed him to give him a razor-thin victory.

Netanyahu's will to power was impressive. Once in office, he tried to construct a presidential system focusing all authority on himself. Gen Ariel Sharon, one of the architects of his victory, suddenly found that he was going to be left out of the Cabinet. Only a covert alliance with David Levy, the foreign minister, saved him. The army, suspected of Labour sympathies, was no longer consulted. New advisers, none of them well known in Israel, were visibly in control. Not even right-wing settlers on the West Bank, who had voted en masse for Netanyahu, were sure if he really supported them.

It is not as if Netanyahu had not explained his views at length in several books. They showed him to be deeply sensitive towards the public relations aspects of any political event, but otherwise to seek explanations in conspiracies. The way to deal with Arabs was not to raise their expectations - a mistake of the Labour government - and so ensure that they would come to heel.

After the election, the Oslo peace accords, frozen since the suicide bombs earlier in the year, remained on hold. But there were also a series of humiliations for the Palestinians: a meeting with Yasser Arafat was long delayed, and when it did take place produced nothing. A home for disabled children in the Old City of Jerusalem was suddenly demolished because it did not have a licence.

Palestinian anger was building up. But Netanyahu seems to revel in these overt displays of Israeli power. There was no recognition that Oslo acknowledged a certain balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians - though much in favour of the former. The Intifada (uprising) on the West Bank and in Gaza after 1987 had shown that the Israeli occupation could not go on as before. Netanyahu's attitude appeared to be that Palestinian demands for human, civil and national rights had no mass support and that their denial would have no consequences.

Netanyahu and his government still portray the crisis about the tunnel as a put-up job by Arafat. The Palestinian leader responded that if they were so sure he was exploiting the tunnel issue, why had they provided him with such an opportunity?

In fact, any perceived threat to the Muslim religious sanctuaries had always led to a furious Palestinian reaction. In 1990, 17 Palestinians were killed when they rushed to defend al-Aqsa when a Jewish fundamentalist group put up posters saying that they were going to take it over.

Prof Ezrahi says he fears that Netanyahu may not be an ideologue or a pragmatist, but a man uncertain of his own ends. He is against Oslo, but has offered no alternative. "For three months he let uncertainty mount," writes Naham Barnea. "The punishment for the waiting was heavy: 70 victims with 14 Israelis among them. A serious blow has hit Israel's economic future. There is a breach in relations with the Arab world. There is the fear of terror. No tunnel could possibly be worth this kind of punishment."