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Israelis Fret Over Their Man 'Bibi'

With Netanyahu at summit, some back home rethink vote

In the weeks before Israeli elections in May, a crucial 5 to 15 percent of voters still hadn't decided whether to choose Prime Minister Shimon Peres or his trailing right-wing contender, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most decided to go with "Bibi," as the new prime minister is known here, giving him 50.5 percent of the vote. But today, some of these so-called swing voters are reconsidering their decision.

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As they watch their leader - along with President Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Jordan's King Hussein - try to save the peace process in a Washington summit, some wonder if his promise of "peace with security" has in fact given them neither peace nor security.

And although Mr. Netanyahu's political situation is not precarious, the rumblings about his inexperience and lack of vision underscore the importance of this week's Washington meeting.

"I think Bibi made a mistake, and it's because he just doesn't have enough experience," says Yosef Tobian, a religious Jew who runs a fruit stand in Jerusalem. "He hasn't changed things for the better because he doesn't understand how to negotiate."

A public-opinion poll taken weeks before the deadly gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police last week shows that the majority of voters - 58 percent - were disappointed in Netanyahu's government.

"It's a matter of expectations and some thought that those expectations were not met," says Israeli pollster Rafi Smith.

Criticism from the right

Though the electorate seems as divided as ever about whether to stick to the land-for-peace formula, even some of his right-leaning supporters are disillusioned with Netanyahu's leadership - or what they decry as a lack thereof.

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Shas, one of the religious parties in his coalition government, has been hinting at a no-confidence motion to force Netanyahu into a national unity government with the ousted Labor Party, which would make for a less hard-line coalition. Netanyahu has thus far rejected a unity government.

The centrist Third Way party, which has a key police minister in Netanyahu's Cabinet, has demanded Israel immediately enter "final status" talks. This demand is a tacit agreement with Palestinian claims that Netanyahu has been dragging his feet on peace.

Others who hoped to see Mr. Peres have the chance to continue navigating the road to peace via autonomy for the Palestinians are beyond disappointed.

"It was so slow and took so long just to get where we did, only to have us to go back to this," says Nomi Hirschberg, a teacher of Biblical studies, referring to the deadly violence touched off by Netanyahu's decision to open a controversial archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City.

For critics, Netanyahu seems to have made a series of unproductive moves and non-moves. He refused to meet Arafat for the first three months; he would not pull troops out of Hebron; he allowed his government to continually announce the construction of more Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank while negotiations with the Palestinians remained stagnant.

'Young' or 'inexperienced'?

The public has even begun to pick at the things that were once treated as strengths in the campaign: His youth now means he is inexperienced; his American education and preference for US-bred aides means he's out of touch with the "Oriental" character of Israel and the Middle East; his self-confident politicking now means he has more enemies among his fellow Likud ministers than allies.

To some Israelis, the fact that Netanyahu won't close the new exit to the Hasmonean tunnel is proof he doesn't deal in the concept of goodwill gestures and compromises upon which the peace accords are based.

Support still strong

To be sure, many are standing by their leader's decision to take a hard line. "What's this, every time the Palestinians don't like what we have to say they're going to open fire on us?" snaps Shlomi, a Jerusalem taxi driver.

But even some supporters see a sad set of two evils. Though the West Bank and Gaza are again conflict zones, buses are no longer being bombed inside Israel. A series of suicide bombings this spring by Islamic militants struck a fatal blow to Peres's popularity. While Israelis are not happy to see their soldiers killed in the territories, it is perhaps less appalling than city buses with civilians being blown up.

Still, the level of discontent with Netanyahu is growing. While thousands of right-wing Jews held a rally in Hebron this week to urge him not to pull troops out of Hebron, Alon Arnon, a spokesman for Peace Now, said he expected 80,000 supporters at a rally Oct. 1 to urge Netanyahu to prevent more conflict.

"The level of expectation today came to its crucial point," Mr. Arnon says. "This isn't just people on the left, but also people from the center who feel the voice of reason must be shown."

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