Ever since (now Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in September of last year and until the declaration of war against the Palestinian Authority last week, they kept telling us that former prime minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu was to blame.
The notion that won a place for itself among the Israeli public and also around the world is that, were it up to Sharon, if Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat were a human being, the Palestinians would already be on their way to having a state. The commentators are saying that Netanyahu's threatening shadow is always hovering on Sharon's right and dictating his bellicose policy. There is hardly a conversation with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that does not end with the unsheathing of the Judgment Day weapon: If we topple Sharon, you'll get Netanyahu.
The fear of Netanyahu has become the ultimate alibi of the Sharon-Peres couple and the glue that unites them. To the one it provides local cover and international backing for the chase after Arafat, and to the other it provides an excuse for partnership with Tourism Minister Benny Elon and National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
However, from a comparison of the records of Sharon and Netanyahu in the Prime Minister's Bureau and on the way to it, it is hard to understand why the extreme right is missing Netanyahu and why the "peace camp" is therefore clinging to Sharon. Perhaps the rightist spirit that has settled upon the Israeli public - in particular, on Likud voters - is what is putting the wind into Netanyahu's sails. However, unlike Sharon, whose language when it comes to diplomacy has been softened a bit since he became prime minister, Netanyahu has receipts that show that being prime minister softened his policy.
Right at the beginning of the peace process, 10 years ago, when Sharon tried to hog-tie the prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu was a senior member of the Israeli delegation to Madrid. Sharon did not support the peace agreement with Jordan - Netanyahu voted in favor of it, Sharon has never shaken Arafat's hand - Netanyahu embraced him at the White House and declared in Norway that he had gone into government in order to implement the Oslo agreement. Sharon was opposed to the Hebron agreement - Netanyahu signed it. Before he was appointed foreign minister and brought into the negotiations, Sharon incited against the American compromise proposal to transfer 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians in the context of the "second further redeployment" - Netanyahu signed the Wye agreement.
According to the Jewish settlers beyond the June 4, 1967, border, Sharon is helping them more than Netanyahu did. With regard to the Syrian track, too, the Labor Party has no obvious reason to be afraid of Netanyahu. Presumably, Peres and his colleagues have heard from Sharon about how he forced Netanyahu to stop Ronald Lauder's contacts with the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad.
It is true that Sharon is less repulsive than Netanyahu to what he calls the "elites," and that his coalition will apparently not produce a peace agreement with Arafat. However, how will the Netanyahu-[Tzachi] Hanegbi-Lieberman government be any different from the Sharon-Hanegbi-Lieberman government? At worst (if the Labor Party does not leave Peres with Netanyahu), the Netanyahu government will also behave like a right-wing government, and will also look like a right-wing government. At best, Netanyahu's fear of international public opinion and his attentiveness to American pressure could restrain his government.
If the Labor Party really wants to help the prime minister fend off Netanyahu's attack from the right, it has to remove its ministers from their chairs to make way for people from Sharon's camp. The transformation of Netanyahu by disciples of Sharon and Peres into an unconventional weapon improves his chances of returning to power. Anyone who hears how Bibi is managing to drive those two old foxes crazy might think mistakenly that he will also know how to take care of that old fox Arafat.
When U.S. President George W. Bush covers for him and the "leftist" media praise him, Sharon no longer needs the architect of Oslo in order to destroy Oslo. His evident disdain for Peres hints that the prime minister already realizes that the Labor Party has done its bit and as far as he is concerned, it can go.
The Labor Party can't take hints. It has something to learn from the right. A year ago the heads of the National Religious Party realized that then-prime minister Ehud Barak was using them in order to arrive with the broadest consensus possible at a peace-for-territories agreement, and that the moment he got what he wanted he would call for elections. When it touched upon their ideology, the leaders of the right did not wait to be thrown out and did not hide behind a hollow scarecrow.
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