Jerusalem With a characteristic flourish, former premier Benjamin Netanyahu returned Sunday to Israel to declare himself a candidate for his old job and attempt to overcome a legal hurdle placed in his path by Prime Minister Ehud Barak's sudden resignation.
The controversial right-wing leader, trounced by Barak in elections 18 months ago, said he was responding to appeals from fellow Israelis to take the nation's reins amid a Palestinian uprising and a paralyzing instability in the government.
First, though, Netanyahu denounced Barak for trying to thwart his comeback by resigning so that Netanyahu and any other non-incumbent parliament member would not be eligible to compete.
"This is the most cynical trick in the history of this country," Netanyahu said at a news conference. "I come here because a day doesn't pass that citizens don't come to me ... who say, 'Come back and put this country into a situation where you can live in it. What are you waiting for?"'
Netanyahu, who has spent the last 18 months in business, mostly in the United States, arrived in Israel just hours after the embattled Barak formally announced his resignation, setting off what could be an even more contentious Israeli election than usual. Barak's unexpected decision to step down on Saturday automatically set early elections for the prime minister's post for sometime in early February. He said his intent was to seek a renewed mandate to pursue Mideast peace, but a rule limiting such a special election to incumbent parliament members means that Netanyahu would be excluded.
Barak, roundly criticized for his failed peace initiatives and his "restrained" handling of the Palestinian Intifada, trails Netanyahu badly in Israel's public opinion polls.
Israel was abuzz with debate, speculation and conspiracy theories Sunday about Barak's Saturday night resignation. On the left and right, politicians were trying to gauge whether Netanyahu had the votes in the parliament to outflank Barak's maneuver.
The suspense mounted even before Netanyahu touched Israeli soil. Television cameras staked out his El Al jumbo jet at Ben Gurion Airport and recorded his every step down the stairway. Known as much for his media savvy as his hawkish politics, the man known as "Bibi" then waited until prime time to make his televised announcement.
Animated and jabbing his fist in the air, Netanyahu criticized Barak for "chronic weakness." He admitted "mistakes" in his own three-year premiership, during which he nearly froze the peace process and alienated many Israelis, but he claimed the country needed his tough stance against the Palestinians to bring a realistic "cold peace."
Accusing Barak of "bypassing the will of the nation" in trying to keep him from running, Netanyahu said he was "certain" the Knesset would take the necessary steps to lift the legal impediment.
Netanyahu's allies were lobbying for a no-confidence vote in the Knesset today in which the body would dissolve itself. That would turn the coming elections into votes for parliament seats as well, allowing Netanyahu to win back his old seat with the opposition Likud Party and stand as the party's choice for prime minister.