Forget the Pullout, Time for the Election Campaign

How three recent surveys affected Benjamin Netanyahu's surprising resignation.

Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu had a rough weekend at their villa in Caesarea. A weekend of anguish, deliberation and inner struggle that ended with a letter of resignation being dropped on a stunned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at 4 P.M. yesterday.

When Netanyahu arrived at yesterday's cabinet meeting, he appeared tense and uneasy, but it wasn't the first time. The other ministers saw his behavior as inseparably linked to the main subject on the agenda: the vote on the beginning of the disengagement's implementation. Neither they or the staff in Netanyahu's office knew that the die had been cast. None of the politicians in regular contact with Netanyahu knew either.

Coalition chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar spoke with him on Friday, and the two tried to arrange a meeting. Let's do it on Wednesday, Netanyahu said, after the cabinet meeting about the budget. Less than a day later, Netanyahu already knew that his schedule would be completely cleared, even before the meeting about the budget, which had been set for tomorrow morning.

Up until two or three weeks ago, Netanyahu was telling those around him - politicians, aides, journalists and supporters - that he had no intention of resigning. His explanations - concern for Israel's economy - were no less convincing than the antithetical explanations offered by Netanyahu yesterday and which he will offer in the coming days. There is a Netanyahu for every occasion.

For the settlers, Netanyahu's action is too little, too late. It will not thwart the disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria (thank God, Netanyahu is saying to himself, I don't need this headache when I'm sitting in the prime minister's office), but it official and decisively kicks off the election contest between him and Ariel Sharon. Yesterday, the disengagement era ended and the election campaign started.

If Netanyahu had stayed in the government until the end, as he recently declared he would, he would have had a hard time facing Sharon in the Likud primaries. How could he compete against him when Sharon would sweep in the pragmatics in the party while Uzi Landau, the leader of the rebels, would take the extreme nationalist elements?

Landau was to have announced his candidacy for the Likud Party leadership next week, after Tisha B'Av (the fast of the ninth of Av, which falls on Sunday). He returned a week ago from a fund-raising trip abroad and is now full of energy and a sense of mission.

A three-way race between Sharon, Netanyahu and Landau is Bibi's nightmare: Landau would take the extreme right. He would have to settle for the less extreme right and Sharon would rake in the rest and win in the first round.

With Netanyahu out of the government, Landau is placed in an impossible situation. Momentum pulling him toward Netanyahu will surface immediately. Everything that Netanyahu does or does not do comes as a result of polls. Netanyahu is a poll addict.

He has his own polls by the way, but note should be made of two public polls published last week: one, in Globes, indicated a substantial drop in support for the disengagement among Likud voters - not to mention members of the Likud Party and Central Committee - where the disengagement plan is very unpopular.

A second poll, published last Thursday by Israel Radio, found that most Likud Party members - the group that selects the party's leader - think that Sharon should not run again. There is no way of knowing, but it is very likely that these polls spurred Netanyahu to resign. He apparently decided to ride the wave of shrinking support for Sharon and the disengagement - and resign.

Netanyahu surely heard about another interesting poll recently commissioned by a senior Likud figure who happens not to be a Sharon supporter. The poll, conducted among Likud Central Committee members, surveyed the standing of the 40 Likud faction members in the Knesset and the cabinet.

According to this poll, Netanyahu has improved his standing considerably since he sharpened his anti-disengagement position, easily capturing the top spot on the list with 57 percent of the vote. Ariel Sharon is in the 10th spot in this poll with just 32 percent.

In other words, as of today, only a third of Likud Central Committee members are interested in seeing Sharon in the next Knesset. The other two-thirds want him to go home, now.

An orange reminder

Ariel Sharon got a taste of what awaits him in the Likud primaries last Thursday evening on Mt. Herzl, at the ceremony marking 65 years since the death of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the head of Betar. It was an orange-protest reminder; 350-400 people were present.

Relatives of Jabotinsky appeared sporting orange shirts. One wore a ribbon that said: "A Jew does not expel a Jew." Jabotinsky's great granddaughters placed a wreath tied with an orange ribbon on his grave. What was to have been a state ceremony - the president, prime minister and Knesset speaker were there - lost its last shred of state-ceremony formality when the wreath laying began. After Katsav and Sharon placed wreaths, it was Rivlin's turn to lay the wreath presented by the Knesset. The crowd started applauding for the disengagement opponent. Rivlin, with a sharp hand gesture, hushed the applauders.

Then Landau was invited to lay the wreath of the Betar movement. The dam burst. For the first time in the history of the ceremony, perhaps of any state memorial ceremony, the entire crowd burst into thunderous applause, for Landau, the leader of the Likud rebels. Sharon, his associates who were present said, stood without batting an eye. And how was Benjamin Netanyahu received? Bibi wasn't there.

Food and transportation

"Every time there is an important vote, I look to my left and you're not there, or you vote against me," Sharon complained recently to MK Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah). Last week, Gafni and fellow faction member Avraham Ravitz came to Sharon's office. The meeting was held after Degel Hatorah, which is a member of the coalition, submitted and then withdrew, at the last minute, a motion of no confidence relating to the religious councils.

The crisis threatening the existence of the government on the eve of the Knesset summer recess ended as it had begun: with a thundering whimper. No one knew, no one heard, no one was interested.

The lack of interest indicated a decline in the power of the ultra-Orthodox in the 16th Knesset. Once they sealed the fates of coalitions. Now they are divided and squabbling. The Agudat Yisrael people are now threatening their friends in Degel Hatorah that they will run separately in the next elections, which might totally wipe out Degel Hatorah, because the threshold for a party to reach the Knesset has been raised to 2 percent.

In response, Gafni is threatening that Degel Hatorah will ally itself with Shas. Because of these disputes, they need Sharon more than he needs them. "What do you want me to tell the people who ask why our children are hungry," Gafni asked Sharon, "that they should make do with the fact that I'm voting for you in the Knesset?"

The meeting between Sharon and the two ultra-Orthodox MKs, also attended by cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon, started with stinging remarks and ended with good will all around. Gafni and Ravitz raised a series of issues where no agreement has been reached between them and the Likud: children's transportation, religious services, aid for kindergartens and most importantly, food service at their educational institutions.

Sharon was surprised to hear that these matters were still unresolved. He ordered Maimon and Ilan Cohen, director general of the Prime Minister's Office, to immediately begin working to resolve all the issues.

If things work out, Gafni and Ravitz told Sharon, you will be undisturbed until the end of your term in October 2006. You won't have a problem with us. We don't violate coalition agreements.

Sharon was happy to hear this. Now, he has to figure out how to keep the Labor Party in the coalition as well. Netanyahu's resignation might make this easier for him as well.