The Mideast on rewind

It's beginning to look a lot like 1998 in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has a shot at taking over again after a very close election Tuesday. In Iran, Mohammad Khatami, the country's president from 1997 to 2005, on Sunday announced his candidacy in the June presidential race. If both win, they can growl at each other via the airwaves just like they did a decade ago.

It's common in parliamentary democracies (or theocratic hybrids like Iran's) for politicians to shift in and out of power, but the political resurrection of disgraced leaders seems particularly common in the turbulent Middle East, where few heads of state set such a low bar that their successors can't perform even worse -- leading to reassessment and career revival. Hence, two-time Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto probably would be holding the same post today, despite being chased out of office twice amid allegations of corruption, if she hadn't been assassinated in 2007; her husband subsequently was elected in her stead. Meanwhile, Iraq's Iyad Allawi, the country's first prime minister following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is once again a political force after his party surged in last week's provincial elections, and he could soon be a serious challenger for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Netanyahu's political rebirth is particularly surprising. Considered untrustworthy even by fellow members of the conservative Likud Party and widely despised by the left, he conceded defeat within half an hour of the polls' closure in 1999, gave up his Knesset seat and resigned as head of Likud, the first time an Israeli prime minister had been so thoroughly removed from power after an election. But in a country disillusioned with the Palestinian peace process and aching for improved security, he looks attractive again.

Khatami's fall wasn't as dramatic as Netanyahu's, but he upset many of his followers by failing to live up to his promises of economic and political reform, setting the stage for the disastrous reign of populist rabble-rouser Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With inflation hitting 30% last year, Iran's middle class now longs for the more prosperous days under Khatami. We hope the clerics who vet presidential candidates give him a chance to run, because his is one comeback we'd like to see. Anti-Israel as he may be, he's still more moderate than Ahmadinejad, and his ascent could lead to meaningful dialogue between Tehran and the Obama administration.

Of course, it would be nice if the Middle East could produce some new faces and new ideas, but it's not alone on that front: Jerry Brown is a top contender for governor of California in 2010.

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