- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2000

JERUSALEM The old Benjamin Netanyahu would have been late, would have poured scorn on his opponents and lashed out at journalists. And he would have had his wife at his side.

But when the former Israeli leader made his return to politics last week after a 19-month hiatus, it was a new Mr. Netanyahu softer, more solicitous, less antagonistic.

Mr. Netanyahu, the man with apparently the best chance of becoming Israel's next prime minister when elections are held in two months, still stirs strong emotions ranging from the intense loyalty of his supporters to loathing among his critics.

Many remember "Bibi" as a master of divisive politics and inflammatory rhetoric. Pointing to his new hair color once white, now dyed a younger gray they say any change is more a matter of style than substance.

But people around him say Mr. Netanyahu, 51, truly has changed since losing office to Prime Minister Ehud Barak last year, and is determined to show the public that he has learned from his mistakes.

"This is not the same Bibi. He wants to correct the errors he made," said lawmaker Israel Katz, one of Mr. Netanyahu's confidants.

By most counts, the errors were numerous. During three years in office, Mr. Netanyahu fumbled in peacemaking, quarreled with Washington, lost control of his coalition and barely escaped corruption charges.

Often when things went bad, he blamed a hostile press and what he said was a left-wing elite dominating the civil service, the police and the courts.

In one particularly provocative remark, Mr. Netanyahu whispered in the ear of a revered old rabbi that the left had forgotten what it was to be Jewish. Embarrassingly, the comment was caught by a journalist's microphone.

"He was the king of inflammatory rhetoric," said Amnon Rubinstein, a veteran lawmaker of the left-leaning Meretz party.

But Mr. Rubinstein, who is hardly Mr. Netanyahu's political ally, said the former prime minister does sound different.

"Even if it's just tactics, that's very important in this country because inflammatory rhetoric is very dangerous in a divided society like Israel's," he said.

Mr. Netanyahu was accused by Leah Rabin of fostering an atmosphere of political violence that led to the assassination of her husband, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995.

Other veterans of Israel's rough-and-tumble political matches say Mr. Netanyahu had to fight aggressively to overcome election odds four years ago, a tactic he now can afford to jettison with his comfortable lead over Mr. Barak.

As leader of the conservative Likud party, Mr. Netanyahu clawed his way to office in 1996, rising from a 20-point deficit to defeat Prime Minister Shimon Peres by less than half a percentage point, in an election held six months after the assassination of Mr. Rabin.

Mr. Netanyahu won votes by harping on the weaknesses of Israel's peace deals with the Palestinians and in part because Israelis were rocked just two months before the election by the worst Palestinian bombing spree in the country's history.

His campaign mantra, "peace with security," evolved during his term to an almost obsessive emphasis on peace-deal reciprocity with the Palestinians: "If they give, they'll get; if they don't give, they won't get." It was a slogan Palestinians found patronizing.

In his public appearances last week, there was little evidence that Mr. Netanyahu's peace policies have changed. Still talking about the need to shrink Palestinian demands, Mr. Netanyahu now says he will strive for a "cold peace" between Israel and its neighbors.

But if Mr. Netanyahu hasn't changed on the peace front, Israel has. The latest cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence has pushed many one-time Barak supporters to the right, making Mr. Netanyahu the main beneficiary of a 10-week-old Palestinian insurrection that has left more than 300 people dead, most of them Palestinians.

Polls give Mr. Netanyahu a double-digit lead over Mr. Barak. Coming just 19 months after Mr. Barak trounced Mr. Netanyahu in a general election, the figures show how volatile Israeli public opinion has been.

They also show that security is still a paramount issue. Mr. Netanyahu, a former commando who has written books on fighting terrorism, says his priority will be to stop Palestinians from shooting at Israeli soldiers and civilians.

He also is counting on other factors to boost his lead, including an apparent decision to leave his wife at home during the campaign.

Sarah Netanyahu had joined her husband in almost every public appearance he made during his years as prime minister, a practice more customary in the United States but one many Israelis found irritating.

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