Just 18 months after Benjamin Netanyahu was voted out of office, public opinion polls show that he would decimate Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a head-to-head contest -- if Netanyahu can only get around the legal obstacles to his candidacy.
Ever smooth before the cameras, Netanyahu gave little hint when announcing his candidacy for prime minister Sunday about his positions on the issues, but he did offer some insight into how his campaign will be run and what image he hopes to project.
Two themes were especially prominent:
The "new Bibi," as Netanyahu is known, is a more mature, sober and chastened leader who admits to past errors and faults and openly seeks to mend inadequacies.
His ostensibly failed first term must be reappraised in light of the subsequent failures of the man who ousted him, Barak.
If the law is amended so that he can run, Netanyahu is expected to try to reprise his old formula of political inclusiveness, which some Israeli analysts have referred to as "Bibi's rainbow coalition."
His 1996 victory and subsequent coalition, which he hopes to rebuild, were based on an alliance of the right, the Orthodox and the Russians.
As part of that alliance-building, Netanyahu deliberately distanced himself Sunday from Barak's "civil revolution," a package of reforms that Barak introduced, and subsequently dropped, to counter Orthodox rabbinical control of personal status laws and of public Sabbath observance.
The plan included the introduction of civil marriage, public transportation on the Sabbath, limits on Orthodox draft-dodging and the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry.
For his part, Barak, in announcing his resignation Saturday night, said he had been wrong to ease up on the "civil revolution" program in hopes of wooing the Orthodox parties. He pledged to resume that program with renewed vigor.
The maneuvering between Barak and Netanyahu over the "civil revolution" shows the importance of the huge Russian vote to both candidates.
Much of the Russian community, which was crucial to Barak's election in 1999, has swung back to the right.
Barak accepts the fact that few Orthodox Israelis will vote for him, and he made no mention Saturday of "One Israel," his present Knesset faction that joins the moderate Orthodox Meimad Party to Labor.
For Netanyahu, who needs both the secular Russian vote and the Orthodox vote, the balancing act is trickier. He believes, he said, that issues of religion and state should be resolved by dialogue, not by fiat. That had been his watchword during his premiership, he said, and it would continue to guide him if re-elected.
Of course, the "new Bibi" message is bound to encounter skepticism, but Netanyahu is prepared for it. "Look," he said smiling, "I even came on time to this press conference." Coming from a formerly chronic and notorious latecomer, this should have scored some credibility points -- at least with the media.
Netanyahu noted repeatedly that he was "not free of fault" and admitted, eyes downcast, that interpersonal relationships had not been his strong suit in the past. His decision-making now would be measured, he said, and he would seek advice widely.
No more would he be the loner who disdained his own allies and aides and repeatedly surprised them with his moves, sometimes rash and impetuous.
What he did not say, but what others say on his behalf, is that this time around Netanyahu would be more circumspect with his choices of appointees, political friends and acquaintances.
Twice, in the past, Israel's attorney general severely reprimanded Netanyahu for the ethics of his conduct. In the "Bar-On Affair," which occurred while he was premier, Netanyahu's now-imprisoned ally Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas Party, tried to have an underqualified but pliable lawyer appointed attorney general. In exchange, Deri's party would support Netanyahu on the controversial Hebron agreement with the Palestinians, which handed over most of the West Bank city to the Palestinians.
Later, when he left office, Netanyahu was investigated for his handling of debts and gifts. Though he wasn't indicted, his behavior was severely criticized.
The "new Bibi," most likely, will be at pains to broaden his social milieu in order to stay above suspicion. At the same time, many believe that the lengthy and hostile police interrogations after Netanyahu left office smacked of persecution -- especially since they ultimately were fruitless.
Netanyahu certainly will make good use of the victimization claim if he runs for office.
Alongside the new Bibi, Netanyahu will ask voters to revise their view of the "old Bibi" in light of what came after his first term in office.
On the peace process, he claims that his slower, more cautious approach -- often called obstructionism at the time -- has been vindicated, given the new uprising by the Palestinians.
The fact that people worry more about terrorism today than they have since the rash of bus bombings in 1995-96 is incontrovertible.
While statistics on terror are open to debate, Netanyahu certainly will seek to use the current security anxiety to his advantage in the campaign.
Netanyahu will stress that Barak has proven remarkably prone to the same criticisms, on both personal and policy levels, as Netanyahu.
Barak, too, has feuded with his own party, despised his ministers, fought with his coalition partners, and inspired intrigue and back-biting among staff.
As to whether his season in the political wilderness has been long enough, Netanyahu had a ready response on Sunday: "I never expected to be back so soon."
It is hardly his fault if the public, through the opinion polls, already is demanding his return.
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