Analysis / Fine Line Between the Criminal and the Questionable

The public sees Tzachi Hanegbi as a corrupt minister, but Sharon sees in him the qualities of a good heir.

Ariel Sharon was happy Wednesday, his associates said. In the morning he participated in the annual memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion in the Negev, but his thoughts wandered north, to Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv. His heart was not with the "old man," but with a young man standing before reporters and unsentimentally taking leave of a political system of which he was a clear symbol - for good and ill. In the last few years it was primarily for the bad, but symbolic nonetheless.

Hanegbi became a "favorite son" of Sharon through a combination of qualities: equanimity, like that displayed by Hanegbi yesterday; cynicism; and walking the fine line between the criminal and the questionable, on the one hand; and on the other, an ability to carry out tasks, a sharp mind and utter loyalty to the boss. The public sees Hanegbi as a corrupt minister, a cynic who manages to slip out of the hands of the law again and again. In reality, Hanegbi is more complicated. When Sharon looks at him, he sees in Hanegbi only the positive qualities that the prime minister thinks make him a good heir.

Sharon took Hanegbi into his own party after dismissing the warnings of several of his advisers, who cautioned against joining forces with someone liable to be indicted shortly. "Friendship above all!" Sharon told them. "Bring Tzachi to us," he instructed, as though he were extricating his younger friend from a battlefield.

It's clear that friendship wasn't the only factor. Sharon has made up his mind to destroy the Likud. Removing Hanegbi from the party is almost desecrating a corpse. Not necessarily due to the electoral effect - one can expect the Likud to hit bottom with or without Hanegbi - but on the symbolic and practical levels. Besides Hanegbi, dozens of activists are slated to move to Kadima, and Sharon and his campaign manager, Avigdor Yitzhaki, need them like they need air to breathe.

As always, the determining factor was the overall balance in the party. Won't the same pensioners from Givatayim who switched to Sharon after Shimon Peres moved over be deterred by Hanegbi, the vitriolic right-winger who opposed the disengagement and voted against the road map? Won't 60 percent of Shinui voters, who deserted their party in favor of Kadima as soon as it was established, now think twice? Among Sharon's close circles, some wondered to themselves Wednesday how to "reduce the rift." The ideal scenario, from their perspective, is that Hanegbi adopts the Peres option: Support from the outside without running on the party's Knesset list.

This will not happen, of course. Hanegbi believes he will evade a trial this time too, and then the path to a senior government position in the next Sharon government, should there be one, will open up for him.

After Hanegbi concluded his news conference at Beit Sokolov Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau walked in. In between, the decor changed, signs reading "Netanyahu and Landau = Likud Victory" were posted, and the activists who had begun screaming at each other were removed from the scene.

What's your reaction to Hanegbi's resignation, Netanyahu was asked.

"Last [Tuesday] night, after I heard about the police decision to indict him, I called him to give him support," said Netanyahu. "It was clear to me that he was in serious distress. One must not judge him, someone in so much personal distress, so I don't see his actions as having any political importance whatsoever. It's the expression of a person in crisis, a person searching for an outlet for his problems."

Netanyahu and Hanegbi were once close friends. In the last few years, their relationship has cooled. But Netanyahu's statement teaches something about what friendship in politics, between politicians, is worth. It was Silvan Shalom, who has never been close to Hanegbi, who spoke yesterday in a totally different style, during a trip to the Carmel Market.

"The same extremists who took over the Likud and expelled Sharon also pushed out Tzachi Hanegbi," Shalom said. "I'm sorry about Tzachi. These people destroyed the home, the movement."

Shalom has been and continues to be a more successful politician than Netanyahu. He knows that Hanegbi has left behind dozens of activists who will be actively involved in the Likud primaries. Who will win their votes and their efforts now - Netanyahu or Shalom?