Big Bang, Little Bang

Following Netanyahu's resignation, will Sharon run against him for the Likud leadership, or strike out on his own with a new party? His decision will shape Israel's political scene for many years to come.

The future ex-finance minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, was beaming. His psychological satisfaction threatened to overflow. He finished the press conference at which he announced his resignation and happily set about making phone calls. A call to President Moshe Katsav, a call to Knesset Speaker Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin, a call to Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. Then the politics began: He called Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, a key person in any future race in the Likud. He called opposition head MK Joseph (Tommy) Lapid (Shinui), a key person in any possible parliamentary putsch against Sharon and in a future coalition. He called a number of the Likud rebels, and asked them to get MK Uzi Landau out of the race.

Netanyahu also called Health Minister Danny Naveh and Education Minister Limor Livnat, in order to get a sense of whether they intend to follow him. As his people see it, these two are the weak link. They are next in line to resign. Livnat is already in a process of inching toward the right. On Sunday, after having supported the evacuation of all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and a few in the northern West Bank, she voted against evacuating the three isolated settlements in the southern Gaza Strip.

Perhaps she too is looking at the public opinion surveys. In the meantime, no one is rushing to resign and march with Netanyahu into the political desert. Not because of the desert, said one minister. Because of him.

With special delight, the newly-resigned finance minister called Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz. The relationship between them is at an all-time low. Only people who used to be close can move so far apart. The skeptical Katz had not believed that Netanyahu would dare to resign and run against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. On Sunday night, Netanyahu called him from the pinnacle of the act, in order to say: "Look at me, I've done it! You were wrong about me."

This reminded Katz of a joke. The son of a respected Iraqi family came to his parents and said: I have decided to marry an Ashkenazi woman. Well, sighed the parents, we hope that in other respects she is all right. Netanyahu laughed, although it is not certain that he understood. Katz laughed too, and two days later he was the only Likud minister who voted against Netanyahu's budget.

The trioThat same evening, Netanyahu had three more phone conversations which from his point of view were the most important at the strategic level. He phoned Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit and Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson the three most moderate Likud ministers and the ones most in favor of the disengagement (apart from Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to whom he does not speak). Netanyahu is convinced that Sharon is going to split the Likud and take this trio with him.

But Netanyahu does not plan to give them up so easily. He is scared stiff of remaining at the head of a right-wing, extremist, vote-repelling list, full of all kinds of Yehiel Hazans and Ayoub Karas. Therefore he will do everything in his power, exert all his charms and promise the moon even if it is clear to everyone that these promises don't hold water so that these three veteran, down-home Likudniks will not go with Sharon.

The hidden connection between Netanyahu and this trio did not begin on the evening of the resignation. As early as a few weeks ago, he sent them emissaries with a similar message: There's nothing for you outside the Likud, and just between us you know that I'm not such a rapacious hawk.

I am the real Likud, says Netanyahu. Not Sharon, and not Landau. Two nights ago, about 20 hours before the right-wing demonstration at Rabin Square, Netanyahu went to New York to raise money. But even had he remained in Israel, he wouldn't have gone near the square. These are not his voters. These are people who are more extreme than Landau. He sees himself in the center. Yes, Netanyahu is a man of the center! The man of agreements. He thinks that he carried out graduated agreements, based on mutuality agreements that achieved security. The left made agreements and gave up security. Sharon gave up both the agreements and the security.

Netanyahu's strategy is to push Sharon toward the left, and Landau toward the right. Landau, he says, means not giving up an inch. The Likud was never a party that wouldn't give up an inch, but neither is it the party of suckers. The majority in the Likud is with Bibi, say his people, not with the extremist on the right, and not with the other extremist, who was dragged into total withdrawal for reasons about which journalists write books. Sharon disengaged from the Likud because he forgot that the Likud has a genetic code, and this code is simple: If you give something, you have to get something in return.

Sharon, said Netanyahu this week, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. At the 1998 Wye Summit, when he was foreign minister, I left the room for five minutes and he immediately gave them a seaport. I had to work for hours in order to get them to annul that. One of the ministers recalled this week that Netanyahu, who gave such an emotional explanation for his opposition to the disengagement, is the same Netanyahu who said the following in June 2004, after voting in the cabinet in favor of the disengagement: "The public statement of a prime minister is considered a done deal. Since the prime minister made his statement in public [referring to the disengagement plan Y.V.] the train has left the station and all we can do is board it."

Two days ago he stood in the Knesset and begged its members to cancel its decision.

Master of contradictionsIt was possible to see signs of the approaching split even before the two dramatic public opinion surveys that were published on Tuesday night by Haaretz-Dialogue and Hagal Hahadash on Channel 10, in which Netanyahu trounces the prime minister among registered Likud Party members (according to the Haaretz poll: 47 percent for Netanyahu, 33 percent for Sharon).

Two weeks ago, Sharon appeared at a party rally in Afula to help the Likud candidate for mayor. Instead of saying a few words and sitting back, as is customary at such events, Sharon chose to lash out at "extremist elements that have taken over the Likud." It is not going to continue like this, he promised. The candidate, incidentally, lost.

In Netanyahu's immediate environs they heard the voices and deciphered the message. A few days later, Netanyahu released a message of his own, one that is catchy and friendly to the ears of his voters: "One big Likud versus the big bang." At the moment, this is the main mission that Netanyahu faces: keeping the package together. "We are the Likud veterans," he said this week to his ally Ruby Rivlin. "It is our duty to maintain the unity of the movement."

Here too, Netanyahu is proceeding by the light of the public opinion polls. In the Haarez-Dialogue survey supervised by Prof. Camil Fuchs, conducted among registered Likud Party members, the respondents were asked whether they thought that the Likud would run as one list or would split in two. Seventy-one percent responded: as one list.

Parallel to the efforts he is investing in unity, Netanyahu is acting on the party front to depose Sharon from the chairmanship of the Likud.

Bibi is the master of internal contradictions, what Sharon once called "right hand and left hand." Outwardly, he will play the great unifier, and in the same breath will try to overwhelm the Likud Central Committee in order bring as far forward as possible the primaries for party chairman. Once, in the not-too-distant past, he would avoid any sign of being a deposer, someone who rises up against his leader. Careful, he was told.

Likudniks don't like deposing. Now, after the registered party members have had their say, this no longer bothers him. Netanyahu is convinced that time is working against him and that the primaries have to be held in November, or at the very latest in December before the public forgets that there ever was a Gush Katif. Yes, he is fed up with waiting. It's burning him up, consuming him. He wants everything now. He wants Sharon to be humiliated in the central committee. He believes that if he hadn't left, Sharon would have pushed him out, shamed him, clipped his wings. In any case, in his opinion, his days as an effective finance minister were already done, because the 2006 budget isn't going to pass in the Knesset. Let Olmert sink in that mud.

Sharon's decisionThe history of the past 50 years shows that splitters and dividers lose at the ballot box. From David Ben-Gurion through Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman and Yitzhak Mordechai. All of them crashed. It starts out with fantastic public opinion polls.

Record popularity. The sky's the limit. And it ends in great disappointment. Why should Sharon's fate be different? After the disengagement, he will have only past glory, a dubious vision for the next term and a heavy and oppressive shadow of personal corruption that will hover over him and his closest family members.

Sharon can still say that he sees the Likud as his political home but the people who live there no longer see him as the landlord. When only one-third of the registered party members, the body that is the electorate, are expressing confidence in him, when only a third of the central committee, which is after all sovereign in the movement, are saying that he is part of them the conclusion is that Sharon is on the way out. In October, after the disengagement, he will have time to think things over. If he has not made his decision by then, he will make it at his ranch, on the eve of the opening of the winter session of the Knesset on October 13 which without a doubt will be the last session of the 16th Knesset.

This will be a historic decision that is likely to shape Israel's political scene for many years to come. Its importance cannot be exaggerated. Whether to run for the chairmanship of the Likud against Netanyahu or to embark on a new and adventurous path that will split the Likud and send tremendous shock waves though the entire political arena. If he chooses a split, no one can ensure that masses will follow him like the Pied Piper. It is not at all certain that all Sharon's supporters in the Knesset will join him on such an adventure. Those whose chances of getting re-elected in the Likud are good will think twice before they leave the brand name for the sake of an old man.

Yes, age will also play its part. Soon Sharon will be 78, having served as prime minister for five years. Does he have the energy for a new political career?

And supposing that Sharon does go for a split, with whom will he go? Ostensibly, Labor Minister Without Portfolio Haim Ramon's "big bang" ensures him enough Knesset seats to keep him prime minister. But this is a problematic option: One list comprised of the Likud, Labor and Shinui is a political Tower of Babel. The Likud voters will be deterred by the leftist tinge of Vice Premier Shimon Peres and his colleagues and by the anti-religious coloration of Lapid and his colleagues. And anyway, why should Peres agree to let Sharon be prime minister when he, Peres, is coming with 20 Knesset members, and Sharon with only 10? Isn't it customary for the head of the largest list to be prime minister?

The "little bang," that is being bruited the establishment of a Likud II with Sharon at its head, plus Olmert, Mofaz, ministers and MKs who support Sharon and some ornaments like Avi Dichter and Dan Meridor does not ensure the prime minister another term. Of course it is impossible to know what will happen. First of all, we'll get through the disengagement, and then we'll see.

Bibi's weekendNetanyahu's greatest concern last weekend was that his resignation would leak to the media and the prime minister would preempt him and send him a letter of dismissal. Another concern accompanied him and his "submarine" (the body parallel to Sharon's "ranch forum"): how to prevent government ministers from attacking him right after he announced his resignation.

Netanyahu made the submarine members swear an oath not to breathe a word. He did not inform any of the ministers or the Knesset members of his planned move so as not to be accused of trying to create a rebellious bloc.

At 3:30 P.M. he put the letter on the cabinet table, said a few dry words and fled from the meeting room as though pursued by ghosts. "I didn't understand," said one of the ministers, "why he was so antsy. He had in front of him a sheet of paper inside a folder, and he kept opening and closing it, opening and closing it."

A day earlier, on Saturday afternoon, Netanyahu sat in the Caesarea port near his weekend residence, with his strategist Shaia Segal and their wives both of whom are called Sarah. The details of the resignation, the announcement and what was most important, the press conference, were summed up at that meeting. The Segals left, and after them Gil Samsonov, Ami Doron and Tzachi Braverman arrived. On Saturday night the religious crew came: headquarters chief Yehiel Leiter, who back in October of last year proposed that Netanyahu resign, and Natan Eshel, the director general of the religious newspaper Hatzofeh. The workers at his bureau were informed of the resignation only the following day.

In recent weeks Netanyahu has commissioned public opinion polls among registered Likud Party members with great frequency. In all of the surveys, without exception, Sharon won by a margin of 4 to 6 percent. Sometimes even more. At one point, Netanyahu's poll-taker, Yaakov Katz, started to ask the respondents "And what if?" And what if Netanyahu resigns? The answers were decisive: We'll go with him, we'll vote for him.

Netanyahu did not know whether to believe this or not. It's a cruel dilemma. What if the respondents were lying? What if he has missed the boat? Contrary to the impression that Netanyahu tried to convey at the press conference he held, the decision to resign did not jell over a few weeks. It was a matter of only a few days. Anyone who has spoken with him in recent weeks including last week says that there was not a hint of the approaching resignation. Netanyahu made appointments, made plans, made arrangements, not only for purposes of pretending. Something happened in the second half of last week that made him decide.