JERUSALEM – Benjamin Netanyahu, once considered a shoo-in to become Israel's next prime minister, is sliding in the polls and may not even win an upcoming contest against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for leadership of the Likud Party.
In a time of crisis, voters appear to prefer Sharon's somber message — that Israelis must soldier on and there is no easy solution to the conflict with the Palestinians — to the charismatic Netanyahu's quick fixes, such as kicking out Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"It's a time of tremendous instability," said Mark Heller, a researcher at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "Sharon projects an image of being steadier and more reliable, and it's partly the old credibility problem catching up with Netanyahu."
Three polls published Friday suggested Sharon has opened a strong lead in what just last month was a close race, and would win the Nov. 28 Likud primary by a double-digit margin.
Even in the poll with the smallest lead, in the Maariv daily, Sharon was ahead 50 percent to 38 percent.
Netanyahu was prime minister for three tumultuous years, from 1996 until he was trounced by Ehud Barak of the Labor Party.
Barak failed to deliver the peace agreements he promised and by the winter of 2000 was forced to call new elections. At the time, polls indicated Netanyahu would defeat Barak easily.
However, Netanyahu, who resigned as Likud chief after his 1999 defeat, walked away from the race, making room for Sharon. Netanyahu complained it would be difficult to rule because only a new prime minister was being chosen in that election, not a new parliament.
Sharon won and boosted his popularity during a 20-month alliance with Labor.
During that time, Netanyahu prepared his political comeback and kept Sharon on his toes by repeatedly criticizing his policies as too soft. Polls suggested Netanyahu could wrest the Likud leadership from Sharon — a stepping stone to the prime minister's office.
However, Sharon appears to have outmaneuvered his rival with his handling of the political crisis triggered by Labor when it left the coalition last month. Sharon then called early elections and offered Netanyahu the job of foreign minister in the transition government in a show of unity.
All this won Sharon points with Likud voters, said Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"He was perceived as a real leader ... who is for unity, both nationally and in the Likud, but also knows how to act decisively," Diskin said.
Netanyahu's new job appears to be doing him more harm than good.
"This team, with Sharon as prime minister and Netanyahu as foreign minister, is becoming set in the minds of Likud members. And if this is the case, then why change a winning combination?" wrote Sima Kadmon in the Yediot Ahronot daily.
Netanyahu's aides say they remain optimistic. Adviser Aviv Bushinsky said Netanyahu's own poll among Likud voters has him ahead 46 percent to 42 percent, with a sampling error margin of 3 percentage points.
Netanyahu has been staking out a position to the right of the hard-line Sharon, calling for Arafat's ouster and criticizing Sharon for saying Palestinian statehood is inevitable. Netanyahu also has played the economic card, promising to lower income taxes and slice government spending.
"There are reservoirs of fat ... wells of fat, in the government offices and I would make cuts," he said this week.
In the two weeks remaining until the primary, Netanyahu will work hard to polish his image as the true right-wing leader, Bushinsky said.
At a Likud convention earlier this week, Netanyahu said that if he becomes party leader, he will make Sharon No. 2 on the ticket. Sharon "never reciprocated and Netanyahu didn't seek such a promise," Bushinsky said.
Even if he loses, Netanyahu will not walk away from politics, Bushinsky said.
"He will be around and do his best."