Support for Netanyahu surges as Bombings fuel political shifts, anxiety

JERUSALEM — They looked like typical young Israeli men, one wearing an earring and army uniform, the other carrying an army duffle bag.

No one noticed anything suspicious as the short-haired man in an army uniform stood at a hitchhiking post outside the port city of Ashkelon crowded with soldiers returning to their bases from Shabbat leave.

The second young man dressed in Western clothes and carrying a khaki duffle bag boarded a crowded No. 18 bus near Jerusalem's central bus station.

But the two — reportedly Majdi Abu Warda, 19, and Ibrahim Sarahne, 26 — came from Hebron in the West Bank concealing powerful pipe bombs. At 6:48 a.m. in Jerusalem and nearly an hour later in Ashkelon, the Palestinians carried out their bloody suicide mission Sunday, blowing themselves and 25 others to bits — and ripping apart hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The suicide bombings have thrown Israeli politics wide open.

Israelis' grief and hopelessness presaged a sharp shift in the nation's politics this week as the public clamored for revenge and Prime Minister Shimon Peres sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip indefinitely.

Opinion polls taken in the wake of Sunday's attacks registered an immediate surge of support for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who until this week was lagging behind Prime Minister Shimon Peres by a wide margin.

The bombings — claimed by the radical Hamas terror group's "cell of the new students of Yehiya Ayash" in revenge for Israel's killing of the Hamas leader known as "The Engineer" 50 days earlier — have inflamed Israel's right wing. They have given new impetus to efforts to bring popular maverick leader David Levy and his supporters may return to the Likud fold to battle for the country's support in May 29 elections.

Netanyahu, in a display of political dignity and acumen that won him plaudits from across the political spectrum, adopted an uncharacteristic low-key posture even as Israeli buried its dead, who ranged from a 19-year-old woman soldier to Russian immigrants.

"This is not the time for arguments and divisions," he told a somber, crowded Knesset on Monday. "The nation is united in its mourning, and in its strength."

Peres, looking drawn and pale at the Knesset forum, reiterated the government's longstanding double commitment: to press ahead with the peace process and with uncompromising war against Islamic fundamentalist terror.

As Peres spoke, however, a potentially dangerous dispute was building up among his ministers and senior aides — and being leaked to the media.

At issue was the question of why a two-week closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was lifted Friday of last week despite intelligence warnings of possible bomb attacks and despite the fact Sunday marked the second anniversary of the Hebron massacre in which 29 Palestinian worshippers were killed by West Bank Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein.

So Peres now faces perhaps the toughest test of leadership in his long political career as opinion polls show people are digging deeply into their political positions after the latest terror outrage.

Those prepared to countenance a Palestinian state — just more than 50 percent of the public, according to leading pollster Mina Tzemach — remain entrenched in that position, for instance, as do those opposed to Palestinian independence.

But the more immediate issue of personal security apparently has shrunk Peres' hitherto commanding lead over Netanyahu.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert of the Likud contended the "battlefield has been brought to Jerusalem" while crowds gathered at the site of the blackened, twisted bus wreckage Sunday chanting "Peres, go home" and "Bibi [Netanyahu] to power."

As Israelis reeled in shock and anger from the most deadly terror attacks since the start of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace process, passengers on that same No. 18 bus line hours after the explosions listened raptly to radio news updates.

"Oh God, when will this all end?" cried one elderly woman, wiping away tears with a handkerchief. "B'olam habah" (in the world to come), replied an old man weighed down with groceries.

Just before the attack, Tzemach was showing Peres a dozen points ahead of his Likud challenger. A poll published Monday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, however, showed Peres at 46 percent, Netanyahu at 43 and Levy at 6 percent in a three-way fight for Israel's leadership.

In a direct match between Peres and Netanyahu, the gap narrowed further, to 48-46.

That arithmetic reinforces Netanyahu's urgent desire to bring Levy "back home" to Likud. Israeli media reported Tuesday that Levy, who broke from Likud to form his own Gesher Party and was planning to run for the prime ministership, had reached an agreement in principle to latch onto the joint list of Likud and Tsomet.

Netanyahu apparently was offering Levy terms similar to those that led Rafael Eitan in mid-February to merge his right-wing Tsomet Party into a joint electoral list with Likud. Such a coupling would guarantee places for seven of Levy's people among the first 40 on the Likud electoral list.

However, reports of a Levy-Netanyahu accord inspired immediate grumbling within Likud ranks, where faithful party members would find themselves battling for a diminished number of "safe" seats on the party list.

Not everyone in the Likud ranks agreed this week with Netanyahu's low-key tactics after the bombings but Peres saluted the Likud leader for his statesmanlike restraint.

Some observers believe Netanyahu's tactic of deliberately spurning an ostensible opportunity to reap "electoral capital" from the carnage will boost Likud's fortunes.

The Israeli nation after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination is not the same seething and volatile place it was before that trauma, and a strident response by the opposition may not have struck a responsive chord.

Even hardline rightists, sworn foes of the Labor-led government, largely preferred to keep a low profile after Sunday's blasts.

The hoarse shouts of "Peres traitor" flung at the premier when he briefly toured the blood-spattered Jerusalem street Sunday morning were few and far between, in contrast to the violent masses that thronged the sites of bus bombs during the 1994-95 series of terror attacks.

But the more silent and more sullen mood of fear and fury engulfing the nation offered little cause for comfort for the government camp, as the immediate post-bombing polls proved.

Granted, the pendulum is likely to swing back if a period of respite now ensues. Monday's poll figures reflected an initial, instinctive outpouring of frustration.

But, as Rabin experienced to his profound distress during an earlier series of attacks, the swing back never goes all the way. Some of that frustration inevitably sticks, and the government suffers from it.

Even Rabin, the epitome of the gruff, straight-shooting military hero who enjoyed the trust even of people who did not support him politically, saw his standings sag in the face of repeated suicide bombings.

For Peres, the challenge is even tougher. Although a successful past prime minister, defense minister and deputy defense minister, he has always suffered what pundits dub a "credibility problem."

He lost four straight elections — in 1977, 1981, 1984 and 1988 — largely because of his inability to give the public confidence in him as a leader.

Peres once again has found himself facing a fateful test of character and leadership. Can he find the path to the nation's broken heart, and offer the solace and reassurance that are the stuff of leadership? No one is sure, even though Peres vowed retribution against Hamas, and said Israel would not only seal off the territories through Israel's elections but would delay its redeployment from Hebron.

By midweek, under pressure from Israel, Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat had ordered Palestinians in the self-rule areas to hand in unlicensed weapons by week's end or face seizures and punishment, and rounded up 120 Islamic militants. But the question was whether that was too little, too late.

Israel also gave Arafat a list of its 10 most-wanted Hamas leaders, including, according to The New York Times, Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas' violent Qassam Brigades wing, and Mohi Eddin Sharif, who succeeded "The Engineer."

Meanwhile, the Israeli public's reaction to Sunday's bombings — a reaction of a profound but muted grief — may signify a new realism in Israel.

"What is the lesson to be learned?" the popular and influential journalist Nahum Barnea said Monday afternoon, standing over the grave of his 20-year-old soldier son, Yoni, who was killed on the Jerusalem bus.

"I don't know. I do not understand what has happened. I am protected by my lack of understanding."

In many ways, Barnea's comment applied to all of Israel this week.

How the process of grasping for answers will pan out politically over the three months ahead is the question that the country, the region and, indeed, the world are pondering.