Almost from the day he was elected Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has been on the verge of losing power, according to a largely hostile international media.

On at least a half dozen occasions, press accounts have predicted the imminent breakup of Netanyahu's Cabinet in rebellion against what was described as his dictatorial methods and erratic policies. Other times, it was suggested that the Knesset, Israel's parliament, was on the brink of ousting him, fed up with his alleged incompetence.Somehow, the supposed crises evaporated - and there he was, still in control. Unnoticed by many of his media critics or at least unreported by them, Netanyahu's political grip was actually tightening, and he was gradually winning greater support within Israel itself for his decision not to accept the Oslo peace agreement as he inherited it from the preceding government of the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

Netanyahu's position is that the 1993 Oslo accord gives insufficient emphasis to Israel's security needs, which for him and his government must be the overriding priority. Now, he is locked in his most serious tussle yet with the Clinton administration over his refusal to hand over another 13 percent of occupied territory in the West Bank to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Opinion among Israelis is, of course, divided, but Netanyahu gives a clear impression of tough self-confidence - nothing like the unflattering assessment of him provided for so long by so many foreign journalists who have been ready and, in some cases, eager to write him off.

He has had a generally bad press mainly because he fails to fit the pattern of what many reporters regard as proper for a national leader: He isn't a liberal and he has little time for what he calls naive idealism toward his country's foes. For example, Netanyahu states bluntly that the Palestinians' word is not enough to guarantee peace.

Media hostility has led to a widespread underestimation of his political talents. In this respect, he is reminiscent of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, another figure who has been consistently underrated.

Don't be surprised if Netanyahu lasts as long as Yeltsin has - or, quite possibly, longer.