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Sign of greatness

In Ariel Sharon's stingy, thin lexicon of compliments, there is one rare one he uses very sparingly and certainly does not dole out to his cabinet ministers: "imperturbable." Sharon has as high a regard for people who are imperturbable as he has disdain for the flip-flopping, panic-prone opportunists who in his view surround him. Tzachi Hanegbi, in Sharon's view, is one of the "imperturbable." The furious broadside the minister without portfolio launched this week against the opponents of the disengagement plan, in contrast to the disappearing act of most of the Likud ministers, moved Sharon. "There is no one to equal him when it comes to fairness," he said of Hanegbi.

The total support Hanegbi expressed this week (in an interview on Army Radio) for the government, the police and the army, and against the demonstrators who assembled at Kfar Maimon, left his Likud colleagues gaping. And they were not the only ones. The left, too, was forced to admit that Hanegbi's voice - Hanegbi the mischief-maker, of all people - with the intolerable appointments he made in the past as a minister and with his endless entanglements with the law, was (along with Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) the sanest and most enlightened voice heard in these hot and dismaying days, days of violence and hooliganism on the one side and political cowardice on the other.

Hanegbi doesn't understand what all the fuss is about, or at least pretends he doesn't. Where do those stereotypes come from, he would like to know. He was always like that, he says. During the evacuation of the Yamit settlements in Sinai, in 1982, and during the Oslo process, too, he always played by the rules of the game and stayed within the boundaries of legitimate struggle, and never, but never, tried to undermine the foundations of the state or democracy or Knesset decisions, as the current demonstrators and their leaders are doing. He does not pander to them or describe them as "people with absolute belief." He calls them by their name - "people who want to cripple Israel's ability to implement its democratic decisions. It is hypocritical on their part to portray the issue as a struggle over democracy and over the right to demonstrate," he says. "What they are doing is not democratic ... It is intended to reduce, obstruct and perhaps even completely scuttle the ability to implement the government's decision."

Going a step farther, he even finds grounds to justify the police blockade of the buses supposed to carry the demonstrators to the south on Monday afternoon, a decision that was criticized by civil rights organizations. "That was an important decision," Hanegbi declares. "It illustrated the determination of the law-enforcement authorities to use every legal and effective means of protection. In that decision, Israeli society protected itself against the danger of a mass revolt, even if, in the end, the attempt was not effective."

No contradiction

If Hanegbi had not been forced to resign as minister of public security because of the investigation against him for making political appointments during his tenure as environment minister, he might have resigned this week. Make no mistake: He is against the disengagement plan, in which he sees no benefit to Israel, and if he had been responsible for dispatching police to evacuate settlers, he might have found the mission intolerable. However, he sees no contradiction between that position and the need to protect democracy from destruction.

"Even if they are right and Sharon is a violent dictator, that does not justify doing injury to one soldier or to a citizen who is on his way home and is affected by oil and nails on the highway," he says. "If they succeed, thousands of mothers will refuse to send their sons to serve in Ariel [a West Bank city], because they will say, `When the government wanted to take my soldier-son out of Gaza, you [the settlers] prevented it.' That is the way to civil war, the way to make a state crumble. Because if democracy and the army and the government and the Knesset are incapable of deciding, we will all deteriorate into governmental gangs. Every party will have a brigade of its own and every viewpoint will have a squadron."

"In Yamit," says Hanegbi, who was one of the leaders of the protest there, "we never said `There will not be an evacuation.' We protested because we wanted the world to see. During the Oslo process we could have organized 50,000 people to march to Jericho and prevent Yasser Arafat from entering. We never even considered that."

He has nothing good to say about the settlers' leaders, about the Yesha Council of settlements (in the West Bank and Gaza), although two years ago they were inseparable - Pinhas Wallerstein and Hanegbi, Benzi Lieberman and Hanegbi. "They are wonderful people, but this is not the generation of Hanan Porat, of Benny Katzover, of Menachem Felix, of the leadership of Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful]. That was a triumphant leadership; no one challenged their leadership. They decided what would happen. But as soon as the leadership fails and is unable to create an agenda, it is perceived as incompetent and extremists infiltrate the vacuum - a rabble of groups."

Are they disappointed in him? "Of course they are," he responds, "but they don't tell me so. I don't know why not. They expected me to be like [MKs] Zvi Hendel, Effi Eitam, Uzi Landau," he says with a disparaging smile. "Politically, I was part of them, but it makes no difference - from the moment they were disappointed in Benjamin Netanyahu, the only person who could have led their struggle, they gave up on me, too."

Not Netanyahu's ally

Until two years ago he was considered Netanyahu's ally, his operations officer; he and Yisrael Katz, the agriculture minister, were on that side. Now neither he nor Katz is in Netanyahu's pocket. Far from it. The distinction Hanegbi draws between Sharon and Netanyahu is one only someone like Ehud Olmert could come up with. "If Sharon stays at the head of the Likud," Habegbi explains, "that will ensure the Likud's victory. Especially in light of its probable Knesset list, which is likely to be very hawkish. The combination of the moderate Sharon and a right-wing list will get the Likud 40 seats in the Knesset in the next elections, too - 25 from the Likud `label,' 15 from moderate voters.

"On the other hand, if Netanyahu becomes the Likud leader, the party will be perceived as having dumped Sharon because of the disengagement. The result will be that the Likud will lose a significant number of voters, which is liable to hand the victory to the left-wing bloc. The Likud will be portrayed as a branch of the National Union. It will make no difference to the moderate public whether the Likud is headed by Moshe Feiglin, Uzi Landau or Netanyahu - many people who would have voted for us with Sharon as party leader will look for an alternative if Netanyahu is elected party leader."

There is a price to be paid for the image of "the new Tzachi," who is loyal to Sharon and upholds the rules of the game so insistently. The only place right now where Likud MKs and cabinet ministers are having to pay a price is in the monthly polls conducted among the party's central committee. There, Hanegbi has slipped in the past few months, from the No. 1 slot, which was "registered" in his name and from which he had been unbudgeable, to fourth or fifth place. Ahead of him are Uzi Landau, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Gideon Sa'ar, all of whom espouse a line farther to the right than Hanegbi's. However, he is not worried, he adds, because he is not the only minister who has been weakened. Others in the same category are Shaul Mofaz, Limor Livnat, Yisrael Katz and Danny Naveh. So in the end, he believes, things will work out for the best. In any event, he will lead all the ministers in the next list.

His cabinet colleagues are not necessarily buying the new image. They suspect the values he is proclaiming and the allegiance to the law he is demonstrating are intended to win the hearts of the attorney general and the officials in the State Prosecutor's Office, who will be making the decision about whether to indict him. "He is a kind of Haim Ramon," they say about him, referring to the veteran Labor MK and minister. "He is loyal to whichever prime minister he serves under."

Hanegbi, for his part, claims he was not surprised at the silence of his colleagues in the face of the right-wing demonstrations. He "understands"them. "They are in a tight spot, they are confused. They don't know what the right thing to say is, what is worthwhile saying, what will hurt them in the Likud Party Central Committee," he says forgivingly.

Sharon rewards Hanegbi in whatever ways he can: by granting him powers and giving him new spheres of authority. Two months ago Sharon appointed him the liaison minister between the prime minister and the intelligence and espionage organizations - the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad, the Atomic Energy Commission. Hanegbi has been exposed to a sea of classified documents, such as few cabinet ministers ever see. Afterward Sharon gave him the Jerusalem portfolio, which had been held by Natan Sharansky until his resignation, and also appointed him minister in charge of the ultra-sensitive case of the Greek Patriarchate.

In the next government, if it's headed by Sharon and if Hanegbi emerges unscathed from his legal problems, he is a sure candidate for promotion. Public Security no longer interests him; it's passe. Defense, yes, and if not, interior.