Analysis / It's Cold Out There

It is all too easy to kick Benjamin Netanyahu for folding last night on his embarrassing referendum ultimatum. It is tempting, but unnecessary.

In fact, his decision not to resign from the cabinet, no matter what the excuse, is the correct and responsible one. Bibi's resignation would have shortened the days of the government, upset the economy and injected a permanent element of political foment. Who needs that now, less than two years after elections, in advance of disengagement, on the eve of the passing of Yasser Arafat?

It probably would have hurt Netanyahu, as well. If he thought it would serve him, he would have preferred to resign. But a resignation would have set him back years and into the arms of the extreme right. The sympathies of the elite, which he so enjoyed, would have quickly dissipated, and he would have ended his days rowing against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tide, in meetings with an ever-diminishing group of Likud rebels.

It's cold and unpleasant out there. He may have eventually managed to unseat Sharon but what would he have then offered the public and the world? A referendum?

Still, Netanyahu in his present incarnation has had his wings clipped, while the prime minister, who refused to be blackmailed and did not blink, can celebrate another victory. The next conflict between them, which may be very close or very distant, will be over the Labor Party joining the cabinet. Netanyahu's task now is to get the budget passed and to harness United Torah Judaism to the cabinet wagon to prevent Labor from joining, which would take a sharp bite out of his plans and his status.

One thing is certain: He won't be issuing another ultimatum. Netanyahu has learned over the past two weeks that one pays for one's mistakes. And one pays for one's stupid mistakes with interest. No one came out looking good from the failed putsch of two weeks ago. If that raggedy putsch had been a traffic accident, Netanyahu would have been in the hospital for a year. "In any case," he stressed in his climbing-down-from-the-tree statement, "the departure of Arafat requires a reevaluation of the disengagement plan." He also said he was convinced the need for reevaluation would become increasingly clear and he had therefore decided to remain in the cabinet to work toward it.

Ostensibly, Netanyahu is retracting his support for disengagement. But he is careful lest any statement be taken as an ultimatum or the presentation of conditions. There will be no more ultimatums. If he wants to shoot, he will shoot, not talk. If elections are moved up, he will run against Sharon on a no-to-disengagement, yes-to-reciprocity platform. He owes a big thanks to Arafat and Ze'ev Rosenstein, who pushed him out of the headlines to a comfortable place on the inside pages.

Sharon still has Netanyahu but is left without the National Religious Party, which until yesterday had provided his parliamentary majority. From now on, he is working on borrowed time, which can go on and on. At any given moment, the opposition, with more than 60 MKs, can come together to topple him, whether by a no-confidence vote, a bill to disperse the Knesset or failing to pass the budget.

Meanwhile, Sharon enjoys the safety net provided by Labor, as long as he does not renege on disengagement. But how long will Labor continue to extend the net? It is hard to know. If Labor Party primaries are moved up to February 2005 and Ehud Barak is elected chairman, it will all be over. Or not. Everything is shrouded in fog; for every scenario there is a counter-scenario. The spokesman for Percy Hospital in Paris said the following yesterday in describing Yasser Arafat's condition: "This is an important stage in a direction that cannot be predicted." There is no better definition than this for the State of Israel's political system today, November 10, one day after the NRP resigned and Bibi stayed on.