Four large, well-pressed Israeli flags decorated the bluish wall behind the departing finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday. Not one or two, but four - as though his resignation announcement were actually an Independence Day ceremony. Indeed, for Netanyahu the announcement was a kind of private Independence Day. It was the day he disengaged from the Sharon government, in which he served as a punching bag from right and left, a government in which his opinion on political-security matters was irrelevant, like the voice of the lowest-ranking minister.
The disgust Netanyahu feels for the disengagement is genuine, not political. That's why his resignation is a correct, normative and even moral step. If he had remained in the government while running an ongoing public struggle, vilifying and undermining the disengagement plan after its approval in the government and Knesset, then he would have to account for his actions. As of 4 P.M. tomorrow he is free, without any collective ministerial responsibility.
Once again he is in the warm embrace of the extreme right, the Yesha Council go-getters, the Liebermans and Hendels who won't hesitate to trample him the minute he dares to disobey them. For the moment, he will radicalize his criticism of the disengagement, and will wait for the right time to officially announce his candidacy for leadership of the Likud Party. If he hadn't wanted to compete against Ariel Sharon, he wouldn't have resigned. But it was the family pressure exerted by his father, brother and wife that made Netanyahu decide.
At the same time, he saw the political noose was tightening: Sharon hinted that compassion was missing from the budget; Ehud Olmert said after the pullout the agenda would focus on social issues; Shaul Mofaz excoriated him exceptionally severely on Channel 2 Saturday night.
Netanyahu understood that a heavy hand, that of the prime minister, was behind all these strikes. He understood that the day after the disengagement Sharon's real agenda will be to go after him, clip his wings, humiliate him at every opportunity, push him out. But Netanyahu said he would not give them the pleasure.
He decided to go under his conditions, when he wanted. The question is what came first: the public ethics or the political interest. Netanyahu is not a level-headed, calculating politician. He has proved this time and again over the last few years. Now too, it's not clear whether he thought his move all the way through. He's likely to find himself in the political desert for some time, with none of his fellow ministers feeling like joining him. Indeed, his resignation is forcing other ministers who oppose the disengagement into the arms of Sharon, who is to have supportive meetings today with most of the ministers, as well as with coalition chairman Gideon Sa'ar.
The bigger gamble Netanyahu is taking is linked to the disengagement. If the pullout fails and is accompanied by tragic events that culminate in a wave of terror and Qassam rocket attacks on Ashkelon, Netanyahu will become an alternative. If the opposite occurs and the disengagement becomes a success story, his resignation will be considered another failed risk - like when he gave up a sure victory against Sharon in the December 2000 primaries and like ultimatum night, October 26, 2004.
Netanyahu may win leadership of the Likud, but in the general elections the public will remember the old, fiery Bibi, and look for someone else. Last night, in discussions after the press conference in which he announced his resignation, Netanyahu repeatedly said his departure would not halt the disengagement.
Does he hope other ministers will follow in his footsteps? "I didn't consult with any of them," he said, and with some pleasure, added: "They were in shock." What was the major lesson you learned from the ultimatum affair, Netanyahu was asked a few months ago, after retracting his threat to resign. If you need to shoot - shoot, don't speak, he said in good American English. Yesterday, he shot, and only then did he speak.
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