News Analysis: Peres down in polls but rebounding, pundits say

JERUSALEM — Despite some dismal poll results and continued outcries against his government's peace process, Shimon Peres is making a credible fight for survival.

The 73-year-old Israeli prime minister appears to be rising from the political nadir that followed the Feb. 25 and March 3 and 4 suicide bombings that rocked Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon, killing 62 people and wounding more than 200 others.

Before the four suicide attacks, Peres had more than a 10-point lead over Benjamin Netanyahu, his Likud rival in the race for the prime ministership.

That eroded immediately after the bombings, with some polls showing Netanyahu ahead.

But by last weekend, the polls showed both rivals more or less neck-and-neck.

This week, Peres appeared to have gotten an additional boost from the anti-terrorism summit he attended Wednesday along with some 30 foreign leaders, including President Clinton, in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

Clearly the political struggle marches on despite the anti-Peres backlash that initially accompanied the enormous public trauma and anguish at the wave of terror.

Peres himself, according to close insiders, is in a fighting mood, assuring all those around him the election battle is "far from over," and directing the massive Israeli crackdown against Hamas in the territories with vigor and confidence.

But the state of Israeli politics — after two weeks of terror and some 2-1/2 months before the May 29 national elections — is more complex.

One reason for Peres' political survival, seasoned observers say, is the pervasive sense of national crisis that engulfed the country after the bomb blasts.

Of the current gallery of political leaders, Peres is seen, even by many non-Laborites, as the individual whose capabilities and experience best fits such a situation. Netanyahu, 46, suffers in comparison from his relative youth and lack of Cabinet experience.

Some believe Peres' policies brought on or exacerbated the recent terrorist assaults. But the question uppermost in everyone's thoughts is what to do next rather than how Israel got to this point.

The answer, embraced by 85 percent of the public in recent polls, is "separation."

Desperate to regain a basic sense of personal security in their own streets, the vast majority of Israelis now say they want, above all, to see their country physically divided from the Palestinian entity.

Whether that entity becomes an independent state is, increasingly, a matter of indifference among Israelis.

Peres, like his late predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, was never attracted to the separationists' arguments.

But now Peres' younger ministers have persuaded him this is the way forward — both in order to reconstruct the shattered peace process and to win the upcoming election.

"Separation," Peres mused Sunday night, "is paradoxical. When you fail [to get along while living together], you need it. If it succeeds, you won't need it any more."

For the moment, most Israelis feel they need it.

At the same time, the government — in the context of its all-out war against Hamas terrorism — is flooding the West Bank border zone with army, police and helicopter patrols.

The purpose of that effort is to keep the Palestinians out.

To the same end, Israeli officials granted licenses this week for thousands of foreign workers who will be brought in to work at low-paying Israeli construction and agricultural jobs in place of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The number of authorized foreign workers in Israel now exceeds 100,000; informed sources say the real total is much higher, however.

For Labor, with its essentially pragmatic approach to the question of the territories, separation is a policy and an electoral platform that can be adopted without difficulty.

All that's needed to capture the mood of the moment is to secure the money, workers and other required resources for separation projects so the electorate can be convinced that now, at last, the government means business.

For the opposition Likud Party and its allies on the right, however, the public yearning for separation poses problems.

Ideologically, the Likud is still committed to a "Greater Israel" — and, specifically, to Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank.

Yossi Beilin, Labor's minister without portfolio, is touting a draft agreement with the Palestinian Authority's Abu Mazen calling for the final border to run east of Ariel and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank.

But the Likud is not prepared to forgo the rest of the areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Meanwhile this week, the Likud was presented with a challenge by the anti-terrorism summit. Netanyahu could hardly come out publicly against Clinton — or against the leaders of some 30 other countries — for "meddling" in Israel's pre-election politics.

Such an attack would not be a good basis for diplomatic relationships if Netanyahu were to win May 29.

Thus, the Likud leader left it to lesser lights in his party to grumble over the conference — men such as Knesset members Uzi Landau and Tzachi Hanegbi.

Netanyahu himself took a more detached stance, recalling that during the 1980s, when he was a diplomat in the United States and at the United Nations, he urged international action against Arab terrorism.

But the Likud's main concern — and Labor's hope — in connection with the Sharm el-Sheik conference was that it reflected worldwide agreement with the peace process Peres and the late Rabin launched with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

That same message has been hammered into Israeli heads and homes night after night on dozens of cable channels from all over the globe.

Israel, of course, is very much an open, cosmopolitan society.

The opening of ties, however modest, with Arab and North African states in the wake of the peace agreements has caught the imagination of ordinary Israelis and the business interest of the country's growing entrepreneurial sector.

Many individuals who are far from being doctrinaire supporters of Peres or Labor are loath to contemplate a return to isolation, to "fortress Israel," to international cold-shouldering.

Labor, in its electoral campaign, will be stressing those points in an effort to counteract the aftershock of despondency and anger — not only at the Palestinians but also at the Peres government — that shook Israel after the latest terrorist bombings.