Netanyahu wants to fight


Like an actor returning to his favourite stage, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to Israeli politics to contest a prime ministerial race he is convinced he can win but which, for the moment, he cannot enter. As things stand, Mr Netanyahu is barred from running, since he is no longer a member of the Knesset, and his supporters have cried "foul", claiming the Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, has made a tactical move to keep his most threatening challenger out of the race.

Under the current timetable, Israeli parties must submit the names of their candidates by Thursday of next week. Mr Netanyahu has yet to oust his most immediate rival within the opposition Likud bloc, the party chairman, Gen Ariel Sharon, but plans to stand against Gen Sharon next Tuesday for the leadership. Mr Netanyahu's decision to challenge Mr Barak paves the way for a legal battle should he defeat Gen Sharon next week, but he has two further options that could keep his hopes alive.

He can wait for the Knesset to approve legislation to dissolve itself and bring forward the date for full general elections. The first of three readings needed to dissolve the Knesset and force early general elections passed last month, and legal advice given in the Knesset after Mr Barak's resignation on Sunday suggests the elections for both prime minister and parliament could take place at the same time and be open to all challengers, including Mr Netanyahu.

The second option for Mr Netanyahu lies in the possibility that the electoral law may be changed. The Knesset votes today on the preliminary reading of a bill to enable the former prime minister to stand, but the so-called "Bibi Bill" still has a long way to go and needs three further regular votes in the Knesset. Both Mr Barak and Mr Netanyahu claim they want "to restore security for Israeli citizens". But in the present climate neither can offer any hope of putting the peace process back on the tracks or re-opening dialogue with the Palestinians. The "al-Aqsa Intifada" is now into its eleventh week and the death toll has passed 310 - with Palestinians accounting for the overwhelmingly majority of victims. The large-scale demonstrations and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops have given way to daily, and nightly, gun-battles, involving fewer combatants. The dead, though, are often children or innocent civilians, targeted selectively or caught in deadly crossfire, and Israeli military officials acknowledge "that Israel has frequently been using excessive force against the Palestinians".

Palestinians claim the present violence can be traced back to Gen Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, with its contemptuous disregard for Muslim and Palestinian sensitivities. Arabs have long identified Gen Sharon more than any other single Israeli figure, political or military, with the horrors in Sabra and Chatila in September 1982. Gen Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount was also an effort to gain the political upper-hand, knowing Mr Barak would have to take the political flak for the violence that would ensue and that the peace process would be derailed. It would be ironic now if Mr Netanyahu failed to unseat Gen Sharon, and the man who has provoked the present wave of violence were left free to seek the highest political office in next February's election.