And Now, the Age of 'Bibi.'(Israeli Prime Minister Elect Benjamin Netanyahu)

Article excerpt

BILL CLINTON WAS SAID TO BE more than disappointed--shaken was the word--by the Israeli election results. Shimon Peres had been his guy: the visionary, the perfect partner for peace. If he won, the "process" would chug along unimpeded; there was the mirage of another White House handshake, with Assad of Syria this time. It would be the apogee of Mideast summits. Next October, perhaps.

Did Clinton ever stop to consider the possibility of Benjamin Netanyahu? If so, did he see the irony? Because, in a way, "Bibi" is the Israeli Clinton, a weird reverse-image Clinton. Not just because he's the ultimate television performer, who waged the final battle of the campaign--last Sunday's debate with the courtly, prolix Peres--on his home court: in the living rooms of Israel. And not just because Netanyahu's knee-jerk bellicosity seems the Israeli analog to Clinton's all-American empathy. And not even because he has wandered through the same sordid alleys of postmodern morality, having endured a humiliating sex scandal in 1993. No, the truly eerie similarity between Clinton and Netanyahu is an impatient, mesmerizing ambition--an ambition uncluttered by doubt or hesitation--that enabled each to achieve unexpected, unlikely victories, the first of their generation to rise to power in their respective political parties.

Likud in 1993 looked like the Democrats in 1991. It seemed faded, demoralized, out of energy. It had been defeated a year earlier by Rabin and Peres. Its potential leaders were either too old, too young or too extreme. Among the youngsters--princes, they were called--Benjamin Netanyahu was not a very likely prospect. Dan Meridor and Benjamin Begin were said to be smarter. Ehud Olmert, now mayor of Jerusalem, was a better politician. But each, for his own reasons, hesitated. "We had been part of the [Shamir] government, which was a disadvantage," Olmert said. "Bibi was an outsider." Netanyahu had a raft of other disadvantages, though: he was considered too glib, too inexperienced (he'd never held a major government post), too hormonal, too TV. "I thought Meridor would be the one who emerged," said an American Jewish leader. "Dan's so decent. It was probably just wishful thinking."

Bibi was not so "decent" or decorous. He made his move while others temporized, like Clinton in 1991. In 1993, "Likud was like a plain woman who'd reached the age of consent," says Ze'ev Chafets, a leading journalist and author. "She'd had a strict father [Menachem Begin] and an even stricter uncle [Yitzhak Shamir]. …