Bibi Is Suddenly Sharon's Bosom Buddy

Why was the finance minister invited to the memorial for Lily Sharon, and what does it have to do with Silvan Shalom's plan for the primaries?

To understand how strange and extraordinary Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's participation in the memorial for Lily Sharon on Friday at Sycamore Ranch was, it is necessary to check recent history. Five memorials have been held at the ranch since 2001, the year Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's wife Lily died. These events are by invitation only. A few dozen friends and close associates of Arik, Lily and their sons MK Omri Sharon and Gilad Sharon attend. This is an intimate event. Moving. Familial.

At the first two memorials, only two politicians were present: Ruby Rivlin, a government minister who became Knesset speaker, and Gideon Sa'ar, the government secretary who became a Knesset member, both of the Likud. Of all the politicians who surrounded Sharon, these two were considered the closest. Loyal. Confidants. For the fourth memorial, Rivlin was already not on the guest list. He had displeased the family. The disengagement plan, which was then in its early days, had turned him into a bitter foe.

Sa'ar was present at that memorial, but he too was not invited to the memorial this Friday. He too had fallen out of favor. This time Rivlin and Sa'ar were replaced by Netanyahu and Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim, also of the Likud. Presumably Boim was invited as a kind of consolation prize for the humiliation he suffered last week in the Knesset when his candidacy for minister (together with the candidacies of his fellow faction member MK Roni Bar-On and MK Ephraim Sneh of the Labor Party) did not come to a vote in the end. But Netanyahu? At the memorial for Lily Sharon? Those present found it hard to believe their eyes. Only two or three days earlier, the gulf between him and Sharon had widened to the dimension of the Syrian-African Rift.

Sharon had accused him, publicly, at the government meeting, of plotting to topple him by going to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the leader of Shas. Sharon's associates were cited in the mass circulation daily Ma'ariv as having advised Netanyahu to "watch his back." Netanyahu's associates riposted with an accusation that Sharon and his people were behaving like mafiosi, and on Wednesday, Netanyahu boycotted the government meeting that discussed the approval of the ministerial candidates.

Inner sanctum

There had never been such a tense, violent week in the relations between the two men, at least not in the past two years during which they have been working alongside each other as prime minister and finance minister - and now, all of a sudden who shows up at the inner sanctum, where the foot of anyone who is not a bosom friend has never trod, not just a "friend" but a friend in the strict terms of Arik and Lily? The man whom those who had attended the previous memorials used to excoriate after the visit to the grave site, in the backyard of the Sharon home, over a drink and a pastry. The man whom Sharon prefers not to call by his name.

Sharon is a cynical individual. From time to time he preaches to his young aides, "You have to fall on someone's neck" and "wet the lapel of his shirt with tears." In order to soften him up. When Sharon sees that the vote on the budget is approaching and there is not a majority, he will invite Shinui chairman MK Yosef (Tommy) Lapid for two dinners at the ranch. When he identifies potential for a dangerous conjunction of Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, he will invite Netanyahu for the most private, intimate event.

And what does Shalom have to do with the matter? In the middle of last week there was a meeting between him and Sharon. According to Sharon sources, this was a difficult conversation. Bitter. The story of the leaked minutes of the talk by United States Ambassador Dan Kurtzer and the accusations that were directed at Shalom in this matter from the direction of Sharon's bureau was only one of the subjects that were discussed there. Insofar as is known, and at this stage this is only a hypothesis, Sharon might have received the impression that in the next primaries Silvan Shalom would no longer be at his side, in contrast to the way Shalom had behaved in the past three rounds in 1999, in 2001 (in the primaries that were not held in the end) and in 2002.

A link-up between Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom in the primaries that will be held among the hard-core of the Likud membership (about 150,000 registered members on the movement's rolls as of today) is from Sharon's point of view a real and palpable danger, an unconventional threat that has to be thwarted by unconventional means. Thus, presumably, the invitation was born. Netanyahu had no choice but to attend. He knows very well what the people who were looking at him astonished and gaping think of him, just as the regular invitees to the birthday celebration for Netanyahu's wife Sarah would gape at Sharon were he suddenly to knock on the door bearing a bouquet and a bottle of sensuous perfume.