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Netanyahu Poised for Comeback Despite Possibility of Prosecution

By Mary Curtius
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- JERUSALEM

Even as he faces the possibility of being prosecuted on charges of bribery, theft and obstruction of justice, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ’75 is making a political comeback.

Buoyed by polls that indicate he would beat his successor, Ehud Barak, if elections were held now, Netanyahu has launched a bid to unseat Ariel Sharon as leader of the right-wing Likud Party. Both his supporters and his detractors within the party say he may very well succeed.

It is an astonishing turnabout in the fortunes of a man whose political career seemed finished just 15 months ago. A hard-liner who came into office denouncing the Oslo, Norway, peace accords with the Palestinians, Netanyahu served a three-year term marked by bad relations with the Palestinians, the Clinton administration and much of the international community. His autocratic style alienated voters and many senior members of his party.

After Barak buried him in national elections last year, Netanyahu resigned his seat in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and walked away from the party he had led to electoral defeat. He embarked on a lucrative career as a public speaker and businessman here and in the United States.

Within months of returning to private life, however, Netanyahu was again in the spotlight, this time as the target of a police investigation. Ultimately, the police recommended that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, be charged with illegally keeping 700 gifts he received in office. Police also allege that Netanyahu had received more than $100,000 of services free from a private building contractor who hoped to trade the work for political favors.

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein is expected to decide soon whether to prosecute Netanyahu. But even as he awaits a decision, Netanayhu is campaigning within the Likud. His supporters insist that Netanyahu, who remains one of the nation’s most telegenic politicians, is the only one who can unseat Barak. Sharon, the architect of Israeli’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, carries too much baggage as an unreconstructed hawk to win, they say.

Netanyahu’s supporters say their man has learned from mistakes he made as prime minister and is the right leader to negotiate a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

“People on the right see the next election as a referendum on the vital issues of this country,” said Danny Naveh, a Likud Knesset member who is close to Netanyahu. “The next election will decide the fate of Jerusalem and the fate of the West Bank. People trust Netanyahu more than Barak to lead them at such a crucial time.”

Although national elections are not due for three more years, few political pundits expect Barak’s government to last that long.

The prime minister lost his majority in parliament over concessions he made to the Palestinians at the failed Camp David peace summit in July. He isn’t expected to last much beyond the parliament’s return from summer recess at the end of October. If Barak’s government falls, or he decides to call new elections, voters could be going to the polls by the end of the year.

Even Netanyahu’s enemies within the Likud grudgingly concede that he has enough support in the party’s 2,700-strong Central Committee to win if he challenges Sharon or any other possible contender.

“If he runs, he will capture 70 to 80 percent of the votes in the Central Committee. People are only looking at the polls,” grumbled Michael Eitan, a Likud Party Knesset member who recently wrote a public letter to Netanyahu asking him not to seek the party’s leadership. After the party’s drubbing in the last elections, when it dropped from 32 seats in the Knesset to 17, Netanyahu doesn’t deserve another chance at leadership, he said.

Brushing aside polls that show Netanyahu as much as six points ahead of Barak, Eitan insisted the former prime minister is simply benefiting from the current prime minister’s unpopularity.

Barak, who has been criticized by the media and some of his own senior aides for his autocratic style, “is making all the mistakes Netanyahu made and more,” Eitan said. A choice between the two would be a choice between “who is worse” for the nation, not who is best, he said.