Bibi's back

  • The dance music at the Schwartz Bar Mitzvah in the next hall thumps through the walls of the gaudy banquet room where Benjamin Netanyahu is making a pitch to send Yasser Arafat packing. "We have to throw him out," the former Israeli Prime Minister tells a gathering of 600 activists from his right-wing Likud Party. "Put him on a plane out of here." The Likud supporters, who have come from all over northern Israel to the port city of Haifa to hear him speak, rise to their feet and drown out the DJ with a rhythmic chant of Netanyahu's nickname: "Bi-bi! Bi-bi!"

    These days it isn't just the Likud faithful who like Netanyahu's message. Israelis generally blame Palestinian leader Arafat for nearly 18 months of violence that has left 351 Israelis dead--as well as 1,195 Palestinians. At week's end, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under U.S. pressure, seemed prepared to meet with high-level Palestinian representatives to discuss a possible cease-fire. Nonetheless, many Israelis still feel that Sharon has not delivered on his promise that he--and only he--could "bring security." One poll shows 73% are dissatisfied with Sharon's government; two right-wing ministers quit last week amid predictions of early elections this year. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is wooing the Likud stalwarts with his plan to oust Arafat and impose strict Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Back from the political sidelines, he seems ready to pounce if Sharon's coalition collapses--as it might this year--or when the government's term expires in 2003.

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    It would be a startling comeback for a man who rose to become Prime Minister at 45 in 1996, but was then trounced by Ehud Barak in the 1999 general election. Netanyahu built his reputation on polished speechmaking and free-market economics in a country where neither had ever been overpopular. But Netanyahu also came across as a demagogue who did not speak out when his supporters circulated a poster portraying then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform. Netanyahu may or may not have changed his spots; the intifadeh, however, has undoubtedly made Israel more susceptible to his charms.

    A year ago, it was Sharon who won election with the promise of a hard hand. Even as the violence continued, many Israelis believed no one else was tough enough to handle the conflict. But in the past two months, as the bloodshed has worsened, Sharon's popularity has slipped; his personal approval rating is down to 35%. In the 3,000-member Likud central committee, his party's ruling body, the Prime Minister has the backing of just 630 members. Netanyahu has 1,680 in his pocket, according to an opinion poll published last week in an Israeli newspaper.

    In a series of conversations with TIME this month, Netanyahu has for the first time unveiled details of his strategy for ending the conflict with the Palestinians. His plan would make Sharon's military operations in Ramallah and Gaza last week look like training exercises. Netanyahu insists that Arafat and the Palestinians have not accepted Israel's right to exist, despite the 1993 peace accord signed by Arafat and Rabin that was supposed to lead to a negotiated end to the conflict. Arafat, he points out, still talks about Palestinian refugees' "right of return" to family homes inside what is now Israel. Israelis believe that such immigration would mean the end of their nation as a Jewish state. "As long as the right of return is on the books, that means there's no real acceptance of Israel," Netanyahu says.

    If Arafat will not budge on the right of return and continues to sponsor terrorism against Israelis, Netanyahu says, Israel should invade the West Bank and Gaza. In this scenario, Arafat would be deported. His 35,000 paramilitary police would be stripped of their weapons, as would the Tanzim gunmen linked to his Fatah Party and, of course, the fundamentalists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Netanyahu says Israel would then pull its troops back to "a security border," though not as far as the border of 1967. Netanyahu would create a physical separation between Israelis and Palestinians. With a network of fences and defensive positions maintained by tanks, Israeli troops would prevent Palestinians from entering Israel. For some time, Netanyahu would continue operations inside Palestinian towns against Hamas. If Palestinian leaders emerge who are ready to give up on the right of return, says Netanyahu, he would be ready to sign a full peace agreement.

    Israel certainly could pull off that kind of military operation, but it would cost a lot of soldiers' lives. But why would Netanyahu court the international condemnation that deporting Arafat would undoubtedly trigger? Because Netanyahu and Israelis generally now believe the leader of the Palestinian Authority is personally responsible for much of the terrorism against them. Arafat would probably continue to play freedom fighter abroad, but his influence would be trimmed. Moreover, exiling Arafat would demonstrate to the next generation of Palestinian leaders that they will pay a price for using violence against Israelis. "The people who come after Arafat need to know that this is what will happen to a regime that kills Israelis," Netanyahu says. Who might such leaders be? "It really doesn't matter," he says, so long as they're afraid of getting the same treatment he proposes for Arafat. He is also vague on the fate of Jewish settlements that might find themselves on the wrong side of his proposed "security separation line."

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