Israel's enigmatic PM keeps them guessing

Only Benjamin Netanyahu himself seems to know which way he is heading, says Patrick Cockburn
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In the six months since he became Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has shown himself to be a curious mixture of Rambo and Danny Kaye, according to one Israeli commentator, his political behaviour varying between mindless aggression and ingratiating charm.

Just over a week ago he stood at the graveside of two Jewish settlers, a mother and child from Beit El on the West Bank, killed by Palestinian gunmen as they returned from a visit to relatives. Mr Netanyahu, his head bowed and his rich baritone voice strangled by emotion, promised mourners that his government would respond to the deaths by expanding Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

A few days later, after criticism from US President Bill Clinton, Israeli officials were explaining that the Prime Minister had not quite meant what he said. It is all a little bewildering for the rest of the world. "The main problem troubling the Americans, like other nations in the world, is Netanyahu's zig-zags," writes Chemi Shalev, a political correspondent. "They have no idea what he is striving for, and why. They hear him denying what he promised the settlers, but also repromising what he denied."

In Israel, as in Washington, there is irritation at these political mood swings. Elected Prime Minister in May, after suicide bombs killed 58 people, Benjamin Netanyahu is still regarded by most Israelis as an enigma. Arab leaders are less polite. King Hussein of Jordan, at first conciliatory towards the new Israeli leader, complains that he was given no advance warning about important Israeli decisions, like the opening of a tunnel into the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem which led to heavy fighting.

But the enigmatic quality of Mr Netanyahu's behaviour can be exaggerated. Going by what he has done, rather than what he says, his intentions are becoming clear: in the half year since he took power, no part of the Oslo accords with the Palestinians has been implemented. No Israeli troops have withdrawn from Hebron under the interim agreement signed last year. There is little sign that the Israeli government is willing to begin the three-stage pullout from the West Bank which would remove a further 900,000 Palestinians from Israeli control.

In short, behind a smokescreen of words, Mr Netanyahu is not going to hand over any real power on the West Bank to the Palestinians. As he says: "I'm not a directionless man who operates on a whim. My intention and goal are completely clear. I know where I want to get to." According to Mr Netanyahu it is his opponents who deceive themselves by dismissing what he said during the election as campaign rhetoric. He says he will implement Oslo, but his own version, so modified to fit Israeli security requirements as to have little attraction for Palestinians.

Israeli pundits, very few of whom support the right-wing government, tended to underestimate Mr Netanyahu before and after his election. They can see his ambition - "one day he will be Prime Minister", wrote Nahum Barnea, a columnist, before the poll, because "he wants it so much" - but all Israeli politicians are ambitious, so this does not quite explain his political character, which at bottom is deeply ideological. He sees himself as an Israeli Winston Churchill, even to the point of privately puffing cigars.

Where Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister whom Mr Netanyahu defeated, saw opportunities, the new leader sees only threats. Visitors to his office notice that, apart from his wife, Sarah, and children, Yair and Avner, there is only one other picture in the room. This is of the ruins of the hilltop city of Gamla, destroyed by Roman legions in 67AD, from whose battlements, as at Masada, Jews leapt to their death to escape capture. Mr Netanyahu often tells the pilot of his prime ministerial helicopter to swoop low over ancient Jewish archeological sites, as if to remind himself of Israel's ancient claims to the land. It is a bleak vision of the future. Palestinian nationalism, in so far as it is recognised at all, is seen as the cutting edge of wider Arab hostility towards Israel.

Mr Netanyahu first attracted public attention when, as a young Israeli diplomat in Washington in 1983, he wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal denying that the Palestinians were at the heart of the Middle East conflict. On another occasion he compared the Palestinians to the Germans of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938, whose irredentist claims were used to justify Hitler's invasion.

Playing down the desire of ordinary Palestinians for self-determination, Mr Netanyahu and his government see them as the instruments of others. The riots in September, following the opening of the tunnel in Jerusalem, which left 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis dead, were viewed as carefully manoeuvred by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. The opening of the tunnel itself was one of a series of provocations (including the demolition of a club for Palestinian handicapped children in Jerusalem) apparently designed to lower Palestinian expectations of political change.

As Israelis and Palestinians alike wait for more violence in 1997, it is easy enough to demonise Mr Netanyahu. The Israeli and foreign press have little good to say of him. In the daily Yediot Aharanot last week Sever Plotzker wrote: "A nation whose gross national product per head of population is higher than $16,000 (pounds 9580) cannot afford extremism, expansionism and dreams of empire." The secular Israeli middle class is frightened that prosperity gained over the last decade will ebb away if the West Bank slides into war.

Forgotten in all this is that deep flaws were clearly visible in the Oslo accords before Mr Netanyahu won the election. The most obvious was the refusal of the Labour government to remove a single one of the 144 Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza. It believed it could have its cake and eat it: power on the West Bank and in Gaza, some of the most congested areas in the world, was somehow going to be shared between two groups of people who detested each other.

As relations deteriorate between Israel and the Palestinians as well as much of the rest of the world, Mr Netanyahu apparently sees this only as confirmation of his vision of Israel as beset by covert enemies now exposed in their true colours. His critics answer that he has himself provoked the hostility of which he complains. Meanwhile, governments across the Middle East start each morning wondering if it is Mr Netanyahu's day for Danny Kaye, Rambo - or Winston Churchill.