ANALYSIS / Is Netanyahu Positioning Himself to Be the Next Ariel Sharon?

Ministers and confidants describe the PM as a man who hardly recognizes himself in the mirror anymore.

These days are especially tough for Benjamin Netanyahu - perhaps his roughest since returning to the prime minister's office eight months ago. Ministers and confidants describe him as a man who hardly recognizes himself in the mirror anymore.

And now "Mr. Anti-terror" is about to go down in history for paying the highest price ever to a terrorist group in order to free one soldier.

The politician who wrote, spoke and preached more than anyone else against such deals, will forever be identified with the "Shalit Deal."

No wonder Netanyahu feels besieged. Not by external forces but by his own past, beliefs and declarations.

They have repeatedly been put to the test in the short time since he entered office - and each time cold, hard reality prevails.

His adoption of the "two state" principle, freezing construction in the settlements and the Shalit deal are cases in point.

"This isn't Bibi," one Likud minister said.

"[The steps he has taken] in the past six months are irreversible," another minister said. "They create an irrevocable rupture between Likud and the settlers and right wing. It shows Netanyahu is serious. He wants to reach a solution."

Some even speculate that Netanyahu, like Sharon, is planning a far-reaching political move that will enable him, buoyed by wide public support, to break Likud up once again on the eve on the next elections and establish the new Likud with his partner Ehud Barak. The latter, at least, would be glad to leave his ailing party with its huge debts behind and join Bibi for another political upheaval - as Sharon and Peres did in forming Kadima.

At the beginning of the week, the prime minister promised the Likud faction to that he would get the Shalit deal approved by both the cabinet and Knesset.

The next day, on a tour of the police headquarters in Jerusalem, he announced that he would bring the deal "to the cabinet and to a public debate." This was a small, imperceptible retreat. If the Knesset approves the deal with a small majority, he would rather drop it. Netanyahu wants an impressive majority of at least 70 MKs against 10-15 objectors at the most.

Such a majority would alleviate his agonizing. Thus, covertly, the prime minister's men began asking the various Knesset factions about their stance regarding the deal, should there be a Knesset debate.