NEW YORK, Dec. 13 (JTA) – It’s still unclear whether former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to run in the upcoming election, but analysts already are wondering how a second Netanyahu administration might differ from the first.
Three years after defeating incumbent Shimon Peres by a hairsbreadth, Netanyahu was trounced by Ehud Barak in May 1999 by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, a landslide in Israeli electoral terms.
As returns filed in, Bibi, as he is known to friend and foe alike, announced his resignation from the Likud Party and from Israeli politics, but few believed his exile would be permanent.
Soon after Barak stunned the nation with his announcement Saturday that he was resigning, Netanyahu stepped in to announce that he intended to run for the premiership.
He denounced Barak’s resignation as a “cynical trick” intended to prevent Netanyahu from running. According to Israeli law, he is not eligible because he is not a sitting member of the Knesset.
On Wednesday, however, the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow Netanyahu to run for prime minister.
The bill amends the nation’s election laws to allow any citizen to run for the premiership in a special election. It must pass three more votes in Parliament before becoming law.
At a meeting of the Likud Central Committee on Tuesday night, Netanyahu made it clear that he would prefer that the Knesset take another route – voting to disband itself, a step that would clear the way for general elections in which Netanyahu would be eligible to run.
There are Israeli precedents for political rehabilitation.
Yitzhak Rabin’s first term at premier was marked by frequent mistakes born of political immaturity, but he returned to power 15 years later, in 1992, for a second term that set in motion Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and changed the course of Israeli history.
Netanyahu, too, pledged in announcing his candidacy on Sunday to learn the lessons of his failed term, which was marked by frequent scandals, policy shifts and abominable relations with his party and Cabinet.
But has he learned enough in such a short time to chart a more successful course the second time around?
So far, he has offered few clues to the policies he would pursue if re- elected.
During the past 18 months, Netanyahu rarely criticized the Barak government publicly, concentrating instead on his business interests as a high- tech consultant and public speaker, and toughing out a police investigation on bribery and fraud charges from which he emerged without indictment this fall.
Since announcing his candidacy, Netanyahu has criticized Barak for “broadcasting weakness” in his handling of the 10-week-old Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but was vague about what he would do differently.
Israel needs to be tougher with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said.
“I think it’s using force more wisely, and not necessarily only military force,” he said. He also said that he would “restore Israel’s deterrent strength” and strike at the Palestinian Authority’s organs of government.
Absent was any larger vision for the peace process, which lost much of its momentum under Netanyahu, who insisted on Palestinian “reciprocity” when Israel fulfilled its commitments under the Oslo process.
The best Israel can aspire to is a “cold peace,” Netanyahu said on Sunday, not the pipe dream of Scandinavia-style relations in the Middle East.
After three years in which Labor Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres did not halt Israeli concessions despite Palestinian violations of the accords, Netanyahu’s insistence on reciprocity was seen by much of the world – and much of the Israeli public – as an excuse to hinder a peace process he had inherited but never really accepted.
Netanyahu, however, said Sunday that his policy of caution and reciprocity has been vindicated, and contrasted it to what he called Barak’s determination to reach an agreement with the Palestinians “at any price.”
Knowing that they would pay a price for their transgressions, the Palestinians sharply reduced the level of terror when he was in office, Netanyahu said.
Comparing casualty figures during his term to those both before – which included the wave of bus bombings in 1995-96 – and after, including the current Palestinian uprising, Netanyahu claimed that Israelis regained a sense of personal security during his term.
The Arab world, however, was deeply suspicious of Netanyahu, and his honeymoon was brief.
In September 1996, after Netanyahu opened a new exit to a tourist tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City, Palestinians rioted throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving some 15 Israeli soldiers dead.
It was the first time Palestinian policemen turned Israeli-supplied weapons on Israeli forces, a grave escalation that foreshadowed the current violence.
Despite his mistrust of Palestinian intentions, Netanyahu, the son of a right-wing ideologue, became the first Likud leader to make territorial concessions in the West Bank, the cradle of Jewish history.
International pressure after the “tunnel riots” forced Netanyahu to hand most of the biblical West Bank city of Hebron to Palestinian Authority control.
Likewise, under fierce pressure from President Clinton at the Wye Plantation summit in October 1998, Netanyahu agreed to cede more West Bank territory to the Palestinian Authority, though little of the accord ultimately was carried out.
Israel’s relations with the United States and the world also suffered during Netanyahu’s term.
Clinton, in particular, reportedly was angered by Netanyahu’s purported arrogance and his willingness to appeal directly to the U.S. Congress when he found the president’s positions unpalatable.
On the economic front, Netanyahu accelerated the privatization of state-owned industries and took several major steps to liberalize the Israeli economy.
As the peace process slowed, however, the giddy economic boom of the early 1990s gave way to recession, and unemployment and social issues had replaced peace as the most prominent campaign issue when Barak challenged Netanyahu in 1999.