News Analysis: Is Netanyahu taking calculated risks, or being foolish

On May 29, 1996, prime ministerial hopeful Benjamin Netanyahu strode into Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv and told glum party activists not to give up hope because "it isn't over yet."

The gloom in the hall stemmed from television exit polls that predicted a thin victory for Shimon Peres.

Much of the country went to bed that night believing Peres had won, only to wake up in the morning and learn that Netanyahu had prevailed.

Those looking for a metaphor for Netanyahu's first two years in power need look no further than those topsy-turvy hours: Just when you think he's through, he's back.

The first two years of the Netanyahu government have been punctuated by crisis after crisis, including: the Sharon appointment, the Western Wall tunnel, the Hebron withdrawal, the Bar-On affair, the Begin resignation, Har Homa, the Meridor resignation, the Mashaal affair, the near-putsch inside Likud, the Levy-Gesher breakaway and the tension with Clinton. And the crisis with the Palestinians over the Oslo Agreement continues.

After nearly each crisis, there has been talk by some, and hope among others, that any minute the curtain will fall on the prime minister. But it never does. Not only has Netanyahu remained in place, but his standing, judging by public opinion polls, is now stronger than ever.

After the bungled attempt to assassinate Khaled Mashaal in September, Netanyahu was trailing Ehud Barak by 15 to 20 percentage points. Last week, a Yediot Achronot poll put the two neck and neck in a two-way race, with a number of other polls giving Netanyahu a slight lead.

"From screw-up to screw-up," says Likud Knesset member Meir Sheetrit, "his strength increases."

Were historians to stand in judgment of Netanyahu based on his first two years, the conclusion would be decidedly negative, said Bar-Ilan University lecturer Yehudit Auerbach.

But, she added, the Netanyahu years are very much a work in progress.

"History judges men by results, and his immediate results are not positive," said Auerbach, who is working on a study about what she views as Netanyahu's ongoing war with the country's elite.

Among the immediate results she cites are steering the country into diplomatic isolation, an icy shoulder from the Arab world and galloping unemployment. "In every aspect things today look bad, but much of the nation is giving him credit that we are on the way to something better," she said.

"Many people believe he can lead us to something better because, against all the odds and predictions, he has endured."

Netanyahu has deliberately made the future a dominant theme in his rhetoric, says media consultant Benny Cohen, who served as adviser to Yitzhak Rabin during 1994-95.

"The easiest way to escape from problems is to say, `I erred but now will change,'" said Cohen. "If you notice, Bibi always looks forward. All his speeches are full of words like, `We will do, We will bring, We will build.'"

Cohen makes no bones about his dislike for Netanyahu. But, he says, Netanyahu is to a large extent, achieving what he set out to do.

"There are two parameters by which one can judge how a person is doing his work: by the direction and by the effectiveness," Cohen said. "I think Netanyahu is effective, but I think he is mistaken in the direction. If his direction were different, if he was the head of Labor and was interested in true peace, I'd say that's great."

Despite abundant hiccups, according to Cohen, Netanyahu has provided results for his constituents. "The man promised to stop Oslo and to renegotiate things with the Palestinians, and everyone knew that re-negotiation could lead to a halting of the process. In that regard, he is doing everything he set out to do."

According to Cohen, Netanyahu has maneuvered himself into a win-win situation. "If he is now tough with the Arabs and he is able to renegotiate Oslo at the price of some protests from the U.S. and the Europeans, he will say, `See, I was right, we are able to get more in the negotiations.' But if the Arabs resume terrorism, he can also say, `See, I was right, we can't make peace with them.'"

Paul Johnson, author of the critically acclaimed "Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties," believes Netanyahu's approach will be vindicated,

The conservative British historian raised eyebrows recently when, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he placed Netanyahu in the pantheon of Israel's great leaders.

"I think he is doing a good job but that his public relations are not good," Johnson said. "But what he actually does is right. I believe he is right in not taking any risks."

Johnson said Netanyahu is playing it safe with the Palestinians out of the fear that if he makes one serious mistake, "Israel has had it, and you will all be dead."

Johnson rejects the opposition's claim that not moving on Oslo constitutes a greater peril to Israel, since it will lead to an explosion with the Palestinians. "I don't think there is any real risk of war, unless Israel lowers its guard in a big way. I don't think the Arabs are going to try something like that again.

"There is a risk of rioting and so on, but so what?" he added. "There has always been rioting in Palestine and Israel. It is something one has to put up with."

Netanyahu, Johnson predicted, will carry on with the peace process, "but at a pace that is safe for Israel. I think Netanyahu, who has a background as a diplomat, understands this."

Netanyahu's toughness also serves him well, Johnson said.

"Ben-Gurion was a tough character, Begin was a tough character and Netanyahu is a tough character — and you have to have that," Johnson said. "Israel cannot afford to take the real big risk, and Netanyahu is not going to take it.

"I have no doubt that in the fullness of time, and against the perspective of history, he will be seen as the great man and great leader that he is."

In contrast, historian Shabtai Teveth, David Ben-Gurion's biographer, says that Netanyahu is taking risks that can change the parameters of Oslo or bring about an explosion.

"There is no doubt that the person who gambles for high stakes, if he wins, ensures his place in history," said Teveth, who places himself among the prime minister's detractors. "In that regard, Netanyahu resembles those before him.

"If he succeeds in getting out of Oslo cheaply, not dividing Jerusalem, and if there are no attacks or tragedies, then that is impressive. But that is a delicate balancing act.

"Netanyahu is gambling," Teveth added, "but I don't think that he has the knowledge, or the vision that is necessary. Ben-Gurion gambled on the basis of a tremendous understanding of history and of political events. He really was a man who could see the other side of the hill, very clearly and very accurately. That is how he proved his greatness."

"I don't think Bibi sees the other side of the hill. He hasn't proven that he does. There is no question that he gambles for big stakes. Until now he has not convinced me that it is a calculated risk that he is taking, just a risk."