JERUSALEM - Sixteen months after being soundly voted out of power, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears about to rise from the ashes of scandal and stage a political comeback.
Netanyahu cleared the biggest hurdle in his return to the political stage last night, when Israel's attorney general announced that he would not indict the former Likud leader or his wife on corruption charges.
Attorney General Eliakim Rubinstein did not let Netanyahu off gently. While saying there was not sufficient evidence to convict Netanyahu, he criticized what he called a "depressing picture of conduct."
Police had recommended that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, be put on trial on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice for accepting free services from a contractor and keeping official gifts when Netanyahu left office.
"The considerations were difficult. There was a consensus by everyone who dealt with this that this was not a proper way to run government," Rubinstein said, adding that no one should think his decision amounted to exoneration. "Far from it," he said.
Netanyahu's was one of several recent political corruption cases. Former President Ezer Weizman was investigated, but not charged, after he received large cash gifts from a businessman, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak is being investigated over possible campaign irregularities.
The facts of the Netanhayu case had been widely reported, and attention here quickly turned to his probable political future and its impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Netanyahu, 50, who was in Atlanta yesterday on business, did not comment immediately but arranged to return to Israel a day earlier than he had planned to.
Polls have found that if an election were held now, Netanyahu would run even with Barak, whose Labor-led coalition has collapsed and who commands only minority support in parliament.
The Likud-led opposition lacks the 61 votes it would need in the 120-member parliament to topple Barak in a vote of no confidence, but the government is not expected to last long after parliament returns from its summer recess at the end of next month.
According to polls, Netanyahu is the only member of the Likud bloc who could defeat Barak and would trounce the current Likud leader, retired Gen. Ariel Sharon, in a party primary.
In May last year, Netanyahu announced that he was taking a time-out from politics after losing the prime minister's post to Barak in a landslide and drawing wide criticism for his party's defeat.
Sharon could stymie Netanyahu by entering into a coalition with Barak, which would create a majority strong enough to forestall elections. He has refused to do so because he adamantly opposes the concessions Barak has made to the Palestinians.
A close associate says Netanyahu hasn't decided whether to re-enter politics.
"He hasn't jumped into the political waters yet, and in Israel it's a swap. He could get dirty. This is a very important factor in the decision," the associate said.
But in the wake of the recent corruption investigation and Netanyahu's stormy tenure as prime minister, it is hard to see how he could be sullied much more.
The investigation involved searches of the Netanyahus' home, detailed disclosures about eight years of improvements to the couple's home that the contractor had performed for free and itemized accounts of $100,000 worth of gifts the Netanyahus placed in storage after the prime minister left office.
During his three years as prime minister, there were frequent crises in parliament and with the Palestinians that left many local politicians and world figures deeply distrustful of Netanyahu and soured Israel's relations with the Clinton administration.
He fulfilled agreements with the Palestinians only after struggle and renegotiation, while demanding and getting cooperation with the Palestinians on combating terror.
In 1996, his government opened a tunnel for tourists close to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, revered by Muslims as the Haram al Sharif, triggering riots and gunbattles throughout the Palestinian territories that left 60 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers dead.
Likud lawmaker Michael Eitan told Israel Radio yesterday that Netanyahu's original reasons for quitting politics were still valid. "He was responsible for the Likud's worst defeat in history and for dispersing the government before its time was up," Eitan said.
Likud's parliamentary leader, Reuven Rivlin, acknowledged that Netanyahu remains a divisive figure. "Either you love him and support him or you dislike him and reject him," said Rivlin.
Rivlin wants Likud to hold a primary in January, to prepare the party to take on Barak. Netanyahu is reported to want to wait until it is known whether Barak has reached a peace agreement with the Palestinians, which would give the prime minister a strong electoral platform.