Omri Sharon had a lot to worry about Thursday. The attacks in Mombasa and Beit She'an had knocked him for six, and knowing that the voter turnout for the Likud chair could threaten his father's victory, he was naturally nervous. Every few minutes, when he wanted to know the feeling on the streets, he would pick up the phone to Finance Minister Silvan Shalom and inquire, because Shalom's people where out there, country-wide, fighting the fight for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against Benjamin Netanyahu.
But when the prime minister made his victory speech at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds the next day, he quite forgot to mention or even hint at Shalom's contribution. Shalom's bad vibes had begun a day earlier when he noticed there wasn't even a seat for him on the platform. Haim Katz had a seat, but not Shalom. Just before the victorious prime minister was to make his address, someone whispered in his ear that Shalom wasn't on stage. Sharon looked this way and that and said "Silvan, where's Silvan?" But Silvan was too embarrassed to go up, because not only had Sharon entered the hall with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz at his side, with Mofaz already having taken his seat, but also Shalom hadn't even been invited to the special security meeting the prime minister had convened following the attacks, while Netanyahu had been invited.
Maybe Sharon had decided to distance himself from socio-economic issues so that he won't be identified with the crisis, and as part of this, he distanced himself from the finance minister. But by Sunday, Sharon realized that he had gone too far, and he made sure that Shalom was on his right at the cabinet meeting, with Mofaz nudged over to the next chair.
Could one conclude that, given a Likud victory at the polls, Shalom will be a second term finance minister? This hangs on two premises. First, which position Shalom comes in in next week's party primaries, and second, his personal relationship with Sharon. Shalom's place in the primaries is problematic, because he is now paying the price of his unpopular cutbacks in the state budget. Two years ago, when he wandered around the markets and local neighborhoods, he was greeted with embraces and warmth. He was then the most popular man in the party, wining a top slot in the primaries. But now it's a different kettle of fish. Everywhere he goes, he takes the rap for reductions in old-age pensions, child allowances, income supplements and the toughening of criteria for unemployment payments. No one in the Likud - not Sharon and not Shalom - is prepared to admit responsibility for the crisis in the economy, even indirectly. But how can this be when you devote billions to the territories, when not even one lonely settlement is disbanded, when with a wink, you support the establishment of a new outpost, when you hand out tax benefits and support to settlers, when you refuse to negotiate with the Palestinians, when you destroy and assassinate, when you use more and more force - bringing on a terrible war of more ruinous terror attacks - then inevitably under these conditions, the economy will tumble and fall and unemployment will grow and grow.
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