PROFILE: Binyamin Netanyahu; Can Bibi beat the suicide bombers?

Israel's opposition leader has seen his political prospects improve this week, reports Patrick Cockburn
Click to follow
Binyamin Netanyahu, universally known as Bibi, is on his best behaviour. The suicide bombs that exploded in Jerusalem and Ashkelon last Sunday, killing 23 Israelis, have certainly saved Israel's opposition leader from humiliating defeat in the forthcoming elections and could make him Prime Minister in three months' time. In the days since the bombings, he has oozed moderation, urging restraint and promising not to exploit the tragedy for his own Likud party's advantage.

He does not have to. Shimon Peres, the Labour Prime Minister, is already badly wounded by the bombings. "Another three more attacks like this and Peres loses the elections," says one of the government's advisers. "There is no strategy that can counter exploding buses. Bibi appeals to Israelis in the way Pat Buchanan appeals to Americans. When the gut speaks, Bibi can smile."

Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House, might be a better parallel. He and Mr Netanyahu share the same soundbite fluency. Both are surer in attack than defence and have been despised and underestimated by their numerous enemies as successful opportunists short on real policies. Mr Netanyahu has none of Buchanan's social populism but shares his ability to tap into the voters' anxieties. And there is no doubt what makes the Israeli voter anxious at the moment: he fears that the Oslo accords, agreement with the Palestinians, have made his life more dangerous rather than safer. Across Israel last week, parents were walking or driving their children to school rather than allowing them to take a bus. Suddenly, Mr Netanyahu's claim that he can deliver "peace with security" looked very attractive. He says it is possible to beat suicide bombers - though he does not disclose how - and, if elected, he would would go on talking to the Palestinians, though he will refuse to meet Yasser Arafat.

These policies may be contradictory, but polls show that so are the views of the Israeli voter. But Mr Netanyahu has to be very cautious. He only just survived the moment last November when Leah Rabin nearly refused to shake his hand at her assassinated husband's funeral. "It's too late," she said to him, as she finally extended her arm. She meant that it was too late for him to express regrets for his part in creating a climate of violence in the months before Mr Rabin was murdered. Mr Netanyahu tried to brush off her remarks by saying she was distraught, but he was politically badly damaged.

His new caution was visible last week. A year ago, Mr Netanyahu would probably have visited the scorched wreckage of Bus 18, in which 23 Israelis died, and made some outspoken criticisms of the government. Instead, he stayed away,and his comments were mild, saying suicide bombers did not distinguish between Likud and Labour voters. The election is not until 29 May and, as the emotional reaction to the bombs dies away, he does not want to be charged once again with irresponsibility. Panicked by its plunge in the polls, Labour is gearing up for an attack on Mr Netanyahu's character.

It has plenty of ammunition, though it has not proved very effective in the past. Labour will contrast Mr Netanyahu's youth - he is only 46 - and inexperience with that of Shimon Peres, 72, who was running the Israeli Defence Ministry when Mr Netanyahu was a baby. If elected, he will be the first Israeli leader not to have taken part in the 1948 war of independence. The son of a distinguished historian, who specialises in Jewish history in Spain in the Middle Ages, he is very much the creature of the Israel that developed after the 1967 war.

Binyamin Netanyahu spent five years as a commando, but his family's reputation for military prowess stems from his brother, Jonathan, who died leading the Israeli raid to free prisoners on a hijacked plane at Entebbe in 1976. Bibi's political career took off in the Eighties, the Likud's years of success. His rise into the Israeli political elite took place in the US, where he took a degree in architecture and business administration and was then number two at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

In 1984, he became Israeli ambassador to the UN, a role in which he was in constant demand on US television. He speaks perfect English, in a rich, beguiling voice that is particularly effective on television. Good-looking, with intense, darting eyes, he is also an effective platform performer, though he gives the impression that he has seldom had to face hard questioning. He is the author of several books, though they have a glib, propagandist quality and have done little for his reputation.

From the beginning of his political career, Mr Netanyahu has proved accident-prone but also apparently unsinkable. He appeared on television to confess to being unfaithful to his third wife, Sarah. There was talk of a "hot video" circulating which proved Mr Netanyahu was having an affair.

In the campaign for the Likud leadership in 1993 - after the party's shock election defeat the previous year - he went on television to accuse "a gang of criminals" of trying to blackmail him over a sexual escapade. The implication was that David Levy, his opponent for the Likud leadership, was involved. Mr Netanyahu claimed he had clear proof, a charge that turned out to be wholly untrue and for which he apologised - but only after he had won the leadership contest.

He did nothing to stop David Levy leaving Likud to form his own party, though this year he is prepared to pay a heavy price to woo him back. It is a measure of the hatred generated by Mr Netanyahu's vicious campaigning that for three years Mr Levy has refused to mention his name and cuts him dead if he sees him in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Throughout this period, Mr Netanyahu was catching up with Mr Rabin in the polls. The suicide bomb attacks on targets in the heart of Israel in 1994 and 1995 made all Israelis feel vulnerable. Mr Netanyahu decided to bet heavily on the settlers of the West Bank and the extreme right, both totally opposed to the Oslo peace deal. He and his entourage mocked warnings that things might get out of hand, leaving him deeply vulnerable when Yigal Amir assassinated Mr Rabin on 4 November.

The suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon mean that Mr Netanyahu can return to the policy that served him well for two years. Its expression is likely to be more moderate. He now leaves it unclear if he opposes or accepts the Oslo accords. He says he "would not send back the tanks" into autonomous Palestinian areas, but implies that the government should cancel its withdrawal from Hebron. It may be difficult to maintain this ambiguity for three months, and Israeli voters could come to feel that if Mr Netanyahu wins, the likelihood is more suicide bombs rather than less.