Bibi's back

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Sharon's aides dismiss Netanyahu's challenge. It's easy, they say, for Netanyahu to talk tough. Unlike the current Prime Minister, he doesn't have to answer to Washington and the international community whenever violence surges. Earlier this month, Sharon brushed off a question about his rival: "I'm not concerned with politics. The nation is in existential danger." Still, some Likud legislators say the Prime Minister has described his predecessor privately as "that traitor"--for criticizing the government at a time when Sharon believes the country is under threat.

Netanyahu's image remains problematic. He concedes that during his tenure as Prime Minister he mishandled personal relations with adversaries and allies alike. His respected Finance Minister, Dan Meridor, said Netanyahu was untrustworthy; he tried to appoint a low-level legal crony as attorney general; and even before his election he had to admit to marital infidelities, after rumors circulated that a rival had a video of him in flagrante. Many Israelis say he thinks like an American--he studied in Boston and spends much time in the U.S. In 1999 he was implicated in a bribery scandal, though charges were never brought. All that makes him an easy target for Israel's most popular comedian. Aided by a $700 gray, combed-over wig, Eli Jatspan portrays Netanyahu as an American with an obsession about money and little knowledge of Israel. "The Jewish people will not move from this land," Jatspan says, mimicking Bibi. "New York is ours..." In days past, that sort of barb might have spurred Netanyahu to vitriolic attacks on the media, leftists, secular Jews. But he seems to have mellowed. At a television studio in Herzliya recently, Jatspan bumped into Netanyahu. "You do me very well," the politician said.

Netanyahu's supporters say his record in office was good. "Bibi cut the budget, and he reduced terrorist attacks," says Yuval Steinitz, a Likud parliamentarian. "It's his personal behavior that cost him his job." Besides, they contend, Netanyahu got a bad rap because he led the opposition when a right-winger assassinated Rabin in 1995--a time when Israel was deeply divided on the merits of the peace process. But Israel now is not what it was then. "People believed Pollyannaishly in the Oslo accords," Netanyahu says. "I was accused of foiling the dream. This time it's clear Arafat is the one wrecking Oslo." Now Netanyahu wants to wreck Arafat.

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