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The enigma who wants to swing Israel to the right

A man who has never run anything could become Prime Minister this week
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He has survived a lot. There was the moment last November when Leah Rabin hesitated before shaking hands with him at her husband's funeral. Three years ago he appeared on Israeli television to admit adultery and claim he was being blackmailed by a political opponent.

In each case it was possible that the meteoric rise of Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, 46, the right-wing candidate for the prime ministership, would end abruptly. But when the smoke cleared he was still there, confidently declaring in his rich baritone that he had done nothing wrong. Even if he fails to win on Wednesday - the first time Israelis will vote separately for the Prime Minister and the Knesset - many people suspect that one day he will get the job.

"Netanyahu will be Prime Minister, because he wants it so much," writes Nahum Barnea, the Israeli columnist. "That is what counts. The hunger. The willingness to wage war, get dirty, to stick to the goal wholeheartedly." He is an ideological man, who brushes aside mistakes and allegations as concoctions of his political enemies.

He also has good luck, even if he can claim that he earns it. If Shimon Peres had called an election immediately after Yigal Amir, a pious nationalist law student, shot dead Yitzhak Rabin six months ago, then Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party would have suffered a shattering defeat. The polls showed a massive revulsion against the right.

Instead Mr Peres, whose indecision is notorious in Israel, waited before calling an election. Within weeks of the polling date being announced, suicide bombers killed 59 people in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv, and the fortunes of the right revived. Despite desperate efforts by President Clinton to save Mr Peres, the Prime Minister is only 4 per cent ahead of Mr Netanyahu in the polls.

For a man whose career is based on his ability as a publicist - for Mr Netanyahu has never run anything in his life - his character and real beliefs remain elusive. It was as the brother of a war hero and the friend of powerful American pundits and talk-show hosts that he rose from being the publicity director of a furniture company in 1981 to leader of Likud in 1993. During the Eighties, as a senior diplomat in Washington and the UN, he appeared so often on American television that one poll showed that many Americans believed he was the US ambassador to the UN.

Israelis have never been able to decide if they are dealing with a masterly opportunist or a committed ideologue. The former belief may owe a lot to wishful thinking on the part of those who do not want to believe that the victory of Mr Netanyahu would mean the end of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians. His own statements suggest that Oslo will get short shrift: asked if he would send the army into the autonomous Palestinian enclaves he says: "Definitely, we will enter. And that is one root of our differences with Mr Peres. Peres relies on Arafat to war for us against terror, and I trust the IDF [Israel Defence Force] only."

Everything in Mr Netanyahu's background argues that he is a man of deep commitments. Born in 1949, he is the son of Bentzion Netanyahu, an historian specialising in the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th Century (the Inquisition murdered between 2,000 and 4,000 Jews between 1480 and 1520). His father belonged to the extreme wing of Zionism led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who taught that the hatred of Jews by their enemies was implacable. Believing that his right-wing politics prevented him obtaining an appropriate academic post in Israel, Bentzion went into self-imposed exile in the US.

His son Binyamin grew up in the US and Israel, and his political success - and some of his failings - stem from the fact that he could be effective in both countries. He speaks good, precise English. From school in Philadelphia, and later Harvard University, he returned to Israel on holidays and for military service, during which he was a member of a commando unit. There may have been moments, however, when his commitment to returning to Israel was not as great as he now says. Last week the daily Ma'ariv discovered court documents in Massachusetts showing that in 1973 he changed his name to Benjamin Nitay. His spokesman said this was "a malicious effort to contrive a sensational story".

The impetus for the start of his political career came from the death of his brother Jonathan, who became such an Israeli icon when he was killed in the raid on Entebbe to rescue passengers on a hijacked plane that one biographer was dismissed for not being reverent enough to his memory. Binyamin returned from Boston to set up the Jonathan Institute to study terrorism, a subject on which he came to regard himself as an expert. It was good timing. In 1977, for the first time, the Israeli right won an election and formed the government.

But it was in the US that Mr Netanyahu had his first successes. In 1981 he was chosen by his mentor, Moshe Arens, to be his deputy as ambassador in Washington. Later he went to the UN in New York, and cultivated the elite in both cities. He has always had powerful allies in Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose and Larry King on television, and columnists like Abe Rosenthal and William Safire. Here Mr Netanyahu's glibness was always a virtue, whatever suspicions it raised in Israel.

Not only was he fortunate in the moment that Likud gained power, but also the moment that it lost it in 1992. Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, retired, and the field to replace him was uninspiring. But the leadership campaign in 1993 was enlivened by one extraordinary episode.

Early on, Mr Netanyahu's third wife, Sara, received an anonymous telephone call saying that her husband was having an affair with Ruth Bar, a political consultant. In response he astonished Israelis by appearing on television to admit adultery. He claimed there was a videotape circulating - the "hot video" as it became known - showing him in compromising situations with his girlfriend. He also alleged that his political opponents were trying to blackmail him by threatening to release the video unless he quit the leadership race.

The hot video, three marriages, and overheated rhetoric before Rabin was assassinated make many Israelis nervous that, by the end of this week, they could have a leader with a streak of zaniness and a record of poor judgment. All their former prime ministers had political or military careers stretching back before independence, but with Binyamin Netanyahu nobody quite knows what they will get.