Men Who Would Be Bibi

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Benjamin Netanyahu has failed. His fragile coalition--a pastiche of right-wing and centrist Israeli politicians--has been dashed by debate over the Palestinian peace process and riven by internal conflict. Halfway through his 4 1/2-year term, Netanyahu has been forced to agree to new elections. All around him, Likud members of his coalition are defecting. The party's elder statesman, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, has called him "the angel of destruction." Hardly a voice has been raised in his defense.

Nevertheless, from all appearances, the Prime Minister of Israel is a happy fellow. Looking fresh and crisp in a blue suit, Netanyahu in an interview last week bounced on the edge of his seat like a man excited by a new challenge. "To the extent the elections will be about the issues, I will win," he said, and he seemed to believe it.

The coalition Netanyahu built after his 1996 election has been teetering for some time. Last January, Foreign Minister David Levy, fed up with what he felt was the Prime Minister's arrogance, quit, taking his five-member faction with him and trimming Netanyahu's majority in the Knesset to a single vote. And as the Prime Minister--following popular opinion and pressed by the Clinton Administration--negotiated an expansion of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank, his ultra-right wing began to wobble. In November, when he withdrew troops from a chunk of the West Bank as part of the Wye accord, it rebelled.

With the scent of political death upon him, Netanyahu, 49, has been showered with scorn by those challenging him for the leadership. From the left, Ehud Barak, leader of the opposition Labor Party, attacked him as a "smug, complacent man" who is "leading Israel to disaster." Blasts from within Likud were equally hot. Ex-Minister Ze'ev Benjamin Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, accused Netanyahu of "capitulation" to the Palestinians. Another former Cabinet colleague, Dan Meridor, charged Netanyahu with making lying a norm. Within Israel and abroad, Netanyahu's enemies and allies alike charge that he habitually promises what they want from him--portfolios to politicians, peace deals to diplomats--and then reneges.

Among Netanyahu's challengers, Barak, 56, is the most serious. A former chief of staff, he is the Israeli military's most decorated soldier. But since entering civilian life four years ago, he has proved somewhat tone-deaf in politics. In March, for instance, he outraged Israelis by saying in a TV interview that if he were a young Palestinian, he'd probably join a terrorist organization. Still, recent polls show that he would run neck and neck with Netanyahu in the event of a runoff. Barak, eager for a boost, has hired James Carville, President Clinton's feisty political adviser. (Netanyahu has long employed Arthur Finkelstein, a right-wing American consultant.)

Barak's successor as army chief, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, has added intrigue to the race with a so-far unofficial candidacy. Both men were proteges of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Lipkin-Shahak has joined with Meridor to form a centrist party; the two have agreed to let opinion polls dictate who gets the top slot on their ticket. Among the other contenders: Begin and possibly Ariel Sharon, currently Netanyahu's Foreign Minister but a man who has qualified his support for Netanyahu.

Elections are scheduled to take place May 17, with a runoff on June 1 if no candidate receives more than half the vote. Netanyahu expects his opponents to attack his credibility and trustworthiness, which aides acknowledge are his weak spots. Still, the profound mistrust that most of the chattering class has for Netanyahu may actually win him sympathy from disaffected immigrants, Orthodox Jews and blue-collar workers who resent the Establishment.

Netanyahu says he hopes to direct the campaign toward a single issue: Who is best suited to negotiate the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip? He argues that the Wye accord proves he can make peace, and that it is better to have a right-winger bargain over the final pact than a leftist who will make a sucker deal. It's a powerful argument, Netanyahu knows, and one that keeps him in the running.