Bibi Wannabes, Start Your Engines

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JERUSALEM: Bibi Netanyahu's job must look easy. After Israel's leading political parties agreed in principle Monday to hold national elections on May 17, 1999, the field of candidates expanded to five, almost ensuring the necessity of a runoff election on June 1. On Monday, Ze'ev Binyamin "Benny" Begin quit Netanyahu's Likud party (founded by Begin's father, Menachem) to run from Netanyahu's right. Monday night, Bibi's own foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, also said he wants in under unspecified "special circumstances" -- this after calling for unity within the Likud party as recently as Sunday.

Unity is not something Israel can look forward to this spring. Netanyahu now faces three challenges from the right, one from the left in Labor leader Ehud Barak, and even one from the vague center in the person of Colin Powell-esque ex-army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. But as more right-flank hawks enter this derby, the better it is for more dovish candidates like Barak and Shahak -- and such political dynamics will hardly be lost on the savvy Netanyahu. Don't be too surprised if by May, the moribund peace process suddenly becomes Bibi's most treasured project.