Israel's Netanyahu, The Man Who Can't Lose -- Or Can He?

The clue to Benjamin Netanyahu is the smile. The more that the broken line of the lips relaxes, the more the eyes turn torn, guarded, distantly hostile, a combination lock on a fortune of pain and dread.

For all that Netanyahu plays the role of Israel's Great Communicator, it is the wordless juncture of calculation and tragedy implicit in that scarred smile, that spells out his policy and his life -- giving, and at the same time, giving away nothing. A victor uneasy with his spoils, his station, his friends, his fate. A prince who would make history, but who makes do with doing the math.

So it was this week, as Israel's government was shaken but outwardly unstirred by the entry into politics of a matinee-idol newsman and of a quietly impressive everyman who won his captive son's return from Hamas.

Netanyahu's first response was that smile. He held it for a jagged cliff of a moment. Then he said, "Welcome to politics."

Even as he spoke, the man with a Masters from MIT was doing the math. Over the past dozen years, Netanyahu has earned a doctorate in defeat, and how it may be avoided. He will do anything to avoid a repeat of disastrous showings in the '99 and '06 elections. And the glimmers of resurgence in Israel's center may force him into an unhappy choice.

While he might have preferred to run as Newt Gingrich, he may have no choice but to opt for Mitt Romney as his model: a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a fiddler with policy, no one's enthusiastic choice, a non-stick if still-vulnerable target for all.

In some ways, Netanyahu has already made the shift. On Sunday, just after anchorman Yair Lapid took the plunge, the prime minister announced free pre-schooling for three- and four-year-olds.

It was only last August that an Israel-bound Glenn Beck, a vocal admirer of Netanyahu as an aggressive opponent of welfare programs, declared that Israeli social justice protesters' demands -- among them, free early childhood education -- were reminiscent of Soviet-era communism.

On Monday, reports signaled that Netanyahu was seriously considering a range of confidence-building measures as a way of fostering peace talks with Gingrich's Invented People.

As it stands, Netanyahu's domestic allies still view the prime minister as the man who cannot lose. An ironclad ruling coalition, an opposition which can barely keep its chairs warm, a White House useful when acquiescent and useful when carping. Re-election is assured. Life is good.

But Netanyahu's smile knows better. The math, as well. This is a man who won in 1996 because 27,000 moderates and leftists believed that there was no way that Shimon Peres would lose, and so stayed home on election day.

The smile knows. From here, there is nowhere left to go but down.

Netanyahu's government rests on keeping his friends close and Avigdor Lieberman closer. But the foreign minister's crucial 15-strong faction -- on a good day a diplomatic albatross of racism and the Zionism of Nastiness -- could implode entirely if Lieberman is indicted for fraud and a range of other allegations.

Shorn of Lieberman's lockstep votes, Netanyahu would command a paltry 51 of the Knesset's 120 seats. Early elections would likely ensue, but if Lieberman were out of the picture, the large Russian vote would be expected to split among a number of parties, with a sizable percentage sitting out the election altogether.

Even if Lieberman avoids indictment, a number of potentially explosive issues lie alongside Netanyahu's path to re-election. They include:

The Iran Bomb -- Of the number of ways this could play out, one of them is an U.S. and allied offensive against Iranian nuclear installations, perhaps prior to the U.S. elections. As hardline prime minister Yitzhak Shamir learned in the 1991 Gulf War, an American attack could be followed by a weighty bill for Israel to pay, not only as target, but in agreement by a rightwing government to genuine and groundbreaking peace talks.

The Migron Bomb -- Militant settlers have Netanyahu in a political bind. At a time when their actions have caused Israeli public opinion to turn against them, they enjoy unprecedented support within the coalition. If Netanyahu defies High Court rulings to dismantle illegal outposts, he risks further electoral erosion. But if he complies, a third of his own party faction could revolt.

The Deri Effect -- A closely watched poll this week showed that if former Shas leader Aryeh Deri runs for Knesset, his forecast five seats could decide the election between a right bloc at 58 seats and a center-left at 57. In 1992, Deri's Shas gave Yitzhak Rabin the edge for far-reaching social programs and peace moves.

To complicate the math further, there is the possibility that Barack Obama will do what many Israelis -- apparently including Netanyahu speechwriters -- once saw as the impossible, winning a second term.

If the smile on Netanyahu's face seems to be wearing thin these days, it may be about the danger that Yair Lapid and Noam Shalit pose him. It's not strictly measurable in votes and math. The danger has more to do with shedding a light of contrast on what Netanyahu and his government have come to stand for. The Israeli who trades on his scheming, the Israeli who betrays and humiliates an ally, the Israeli willing to say anything to get what he wants, to keep anything he wants. The Israeli willing to countenance any attack on democracy, any attack on Palestinians, any attack on leftists, any attack on asylum seekers. On the wrong sorts of Jews.

The smile knows. The smile that has been willing to court the Ugly Israeli, knows that now and then, there's an election here that's different.

This time around, in a sense much more than skin deep, may a more beautiful Israeli win. ___________________________________

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