Jerusalem — Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he was close to deciding whether to challenge Ehud Barak for the premiership, saying the first priority must be to restore security after two months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Netanyahu currently holds a double-digit lead in opinion polls over Barak. The current Palestinian uprising has left many Israelis disillusioned with the prime minister and his handling of the peace process and Barak has been forced to call early elections.
Mobbed by journalists at Ben-Gurion airport near Tel Aviv upon returning from a lengthy trip to the United States, Netanyahu refused to give a clear answer when asked whether he would run for prime minister.
He said he "would consult first of all with my family, and my associates and myself" and would make a decision soon "not in weeks or in months."
Because of the violence, Netanyahu said "the nation is gripped by fear." The most important goal now, he said, is to "return a feeling of security to every citizen."
During his 1996-1999 tenure, Netanyahu struck a tough security stance and was perceived by Palestinians and the United States as stalling peace negotiations. Barak handily defeated him in elections and took office 18 months ago.
Meanwhile, the political turmoil and the ongoing violence appeared to feed off one another Monday as the region endured another tense day. Nearly 300 people have been killed since late September.
Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen waged fierce shootouts near a Jewish shrine in Bethlehem, a West Bank town controlled by the Palestinians. In the Gaza Strip, an explosion killed an Islamic militant who was apparently preparing to plant a bomb.
The Israeli army said Palestinian gunmen attacked the shrine, revered by Jews as Rachel's Tomb, the burial site of the biblical matriarch, from three sides and apparently tried to take it over. Palestinians said the fighting broke out after soldiers and Jewish settlers attacked Muslim worshippers.
The confrontation lasted for hours.