His closest associates say they don't know him. A former prime minister from his party says, "He is not a very trustworthy man. I don't believe he believes in anything." And President Clinton's advisers have spent a lot of energy trying to figure out where he's going, because understanding the enigma that is Benjamin Netanyahu may be the key to understanding whether there is any chance of peace between Israel and the Palestinians as long as he is in office.
This century has had its share of enigmatic leaders. Stalin kept his aides on tenterhooks most of the time. De Gaulle deliberately cultivated an air of mystery about himself, which he considered essential to ruling. Nixon had a theory that confusing his adversaries was part of leadership. William Bundy, in a new book about Nixon titled "Tangled Web," says that his accomplishments were undermined by an unshakable bent to deceive.
But as David Remnick suggests in a brilliant profile in The New Yorker, Netanyahu may be a puzzle even to himself.
A principal influence on him has been his father, Benzion, a hard-line Zionist who sees Jewish history as a history of holocausts and does not believe in peace with the Arabs. Netanyahu dismisses the idea of paternal influence as "psychobabble." But friends and colleagues who have known him for years do not.
Yet, although his heart may be with the extreme right wing, his mind tells him that the status quo cannot endure. Will he listen to the call of history and try to come to an agreement with the Palestinians? Or will he listen to the right-wing constituencies that keep him in office?
One observer says his visceral reactions are ideological like his father's, but he knows that these reactions may be wrong. The result is paralysis, motion without movement. And it is all pent up within him. He has no real circle of trusted friends. His three marriages have not worked out very well. He has been obliged to go on television and confess to adultery. His former foreign minister, David Levy, calls him "a Napoleon and a liar."
It is rare to see a leader in a crucial position unreadable even to his closest associates. His constant companion in public is David Bar-Illan, his spokesman and media adviser. And Mr. Bar-Illan told Mr. Remnick, "Bibi is very hard to read emotionally. He's very closed. It's not possible to read what he feels. I never know what's in his heart or mind. I don't know if he does."
And so we are left to wonder whether Netanyahu can overcome his family history and whatever it is that makes him so locked up within himself and finally make peace.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.