Tags: netanyahu | obama | iran

Obama Can Expect Tough Sell With Israelis on Iran

Tuesday, 10 Feb 2009 06:38 PM

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JERUSALEM - A decade after being ousted by Israelis entranced with his rival's promise of peace accords and modest governance, Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to retake power in a country now in the throes of disaffection and war fears.

Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran's nuclear designs and Israel's economic ills provided all the grist Netanyahu has needed to end ideological drift in his hawkish Likud party and take a lead in polls ahead of Tuesday's parliamentary election.

Though his former aide Avigdor Lieberman has been pulling voters away to the right of Likud, Netanyahu goes into the ballot with a lead over the centrist Kadima party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and looks best placed to form a coalition in a Knesset destined to be among the most rightist in memory.

The U.S.-educated son of an storied Zionist scholar, Netanyahu, 59, cast his comeback as vindication of the Likud's long view -- that ceding occupied Arab land unilaterally had backfired by emboldening Islamist foes of the Jewish state.

A former finance minister who had championed welfare cuts and free-market practices, he also presented himself as the man to keep Israel afloat above swelling global budget crises.

Yet stability has often eluded the career of the telegenic Netanyahu, who is known by his boyhood nickname "Bibi."

He became the youngest Israeli prime minister in 1996, defeating the center-left Labor party's Shimon Peres, whose prized interim Palestinian peace deals had been all-but blown away by a spree of Hamas suicide bombings.

Netanyahu's campaign pledge was "peace and security" but he faced a withering test over the opening by archaeologists of a new entrance to a tunnel in Arab East Jerusalem, sparking gun battles in which 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis died.

Despite publicly reviling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu eventually handed him most of the divided city of Hebron in 1997, breaking with the Likud's refusal to consider giving up biblical West Bank territory.

But when Netanyahu broke ground two months later for the Jewish West Bank settlement of Har Homa, at what Arabs call Jabal Abu Ghneim between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, he plunged U.S.-sponsored peacemaking into 19 months of crisis. That culminated in Netanyahu being toppled by Labor's Ehud Barak.

Though Barak's breakneck bids for rapprochement with Syria and the Palestinians failed, they were welcomed by a U.S. administration that saw a tiring truculence in Netanyahu.

Diplomat Dennis Ross described him as "overcome with hubris" and quoted then President Bill Clinton as complaining that Netanyahu acted as though Israel were the real superpower.

What might this bode for Netanyahu's ties with the new Democratic president, Barack Obama, and Clinton's wife Hillary, who as secretary of state must deal with a region bracing for a threatened Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and the possibility of Palestinian statehood negotiations being shelved?

Netanyahu has also been cool to the recently revived Israeli rapprochement efforts with Syria, though during his first term as premier he also sent an envoy to sound out Damascus' demands.

Confidants insist there is no cause for concern, citing an appreciation in post-9/11 Washington, as well as in some parts of Europe, of the conservative strategies advanced by Netanyahu.

"We've all come a long way, and everyone now realizes the extent to which Bibi's predictions proved true," said Yuval Steinitz, a senior Likud lawmaker.

Netanyahu will likely have to form a coalition government drawing on Labor and Livni's centrist Kadima, though he also speaks favorably of including Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.

A former military commando, Netanyahu is a self-styled terrorism expert, writing books and forming a think-tank after his elder brother Yoni was killed leading the raid to release Israeli hostages held at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976.

His fluency in English and mastery of the soundbite won him praise at home and abroad in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he served as U.N. ambassador and as deputy foreign minister.

In a 1993 scandal known as "Bibigate," a mixture of sex, lies and videotape, Netanyahu admitted cheating on his wife Sara, with whom he has two sons. But he patched it up, both with his wife -- his third -- and with voters.

Yet Netanyahu found himself the perennial focus of hostile press at home, with commentators seeing a crass populism in his claim to be battling national elites. Some pundits suggested that Israel's dominant Ashkenazim -- Jews of European descent -- could not forgive "one of their own" for appealing so deeply to a Sephardi underclass with Middle Eastern and North African roots.

Netanyahu's last cabinet portfolio was as finance minister in Ariel Sharon's Likud-led government, a post in which he won praise from business leaders for free-market reforms. He quit in protest shortly before the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005, which prompted a schism in which Sharon bolted to form Kadima.

Critics accused Netanyahu of a flip-flopping opportunism, noting that he had earlier supported the Gaza withdrawal in a parliamentary vote. Sharon, a flinty former general, dismissed Netanyahu as "unable to handle pressure."

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