The Big Profit-taker

The abhorrence of the settlers is so deep, and the yearning for quiet is so great, that the majority of the public is even prepared to overlook the corruption of the Sharon family.

Ehud Olmert is one of the most reviled people in Likud. The Likud Central Committee considers him an invader from without, not one of their own, a condescending and annoying member of the party. If not for the Big Bang, Olmert would have been ranked quite low in the rankings in the internal election, and if Netanyahu had beaten him, he would have only been dreaming of a spot in the government.

But Netanyahu, who specializes in political mistakes, committed one of his biggest ever, and withdrew from the government. In so doing, he handed over on a silver platter the Finance Ministry to his greatest rival. What's more, he did so at a time in which there were large budget surpluses, which enables Olmert to be a beneficent finance minister in an election year. Could anyone imagine a bigger mistake than this?

Afterward, despite all of the assessments offered by the commentators, Sharon decided to dismantle the Likud and to carry out his Big Bang. Here, too, the big winner is Olmert, who became the heir apparent. Heir to Sharon, of course.

Olmert has no shame. He has no problem putting his cigar and his fountain pen deep in his pocket and going to a soup kitchen for a photo op. Nor does he have any problem telling the Israeli people that the evil Netanyahu is to blame for poverty and, "I struggled against his mistakes."

One of the "struggles" took place prior to the passage of the 2005 budget. Netanyahu submitted a budget-reduction plan and reform program, and Olmert presented an alternate program which, had it been accepted, would have brought the economy to its knees. Olmert proposed canceling the "NIS 6 billion to NIS 7 billion cutback," because it was "completely unneeded, and was liable to cause a slow-down of the economy and an increase in unemployment."

On the other hand, "The ministers should be allocated another NIS 6.4 billion for additional expenses." All of the ministers immediately fell in love with the plan, but to our good fortune it was Netanyahu's program that was passed, which triggered high growth, a reduction in unemployment and a large budget surplus. But who remembers? Right now it's popular to blame everything on Bibi.

Until a few months ago, Netanyahu's future looked rosier than ever. All the commentators predicted that he would easily beat Sharon in the Likud primaries and become the prime minister. But then Sharon shuffled the deck, stole the same part of the Likud away from Netanyahu, and left him with a small right-wing party, with a fair share of corrupt party members among them. The public has grown fed up with the Likud, and particularly with the Likud Central Committee.

Nor does Netanyahu get any credit for the economic recovery plan that he initiated and executed. Early in 2003, he received an economy that was in deep crisis, after two years of a harsh intifada that frightened away tourists, prevented Israelis from shopping in their malls, caused a deep recession, the closure of factories, dismissals - and the utter loss of financial security. The crisis was so deep that the governor of the Bank of Israel reported that there was a danger one of the country's large banks could collapse.

Netanyahu arrived on the scene and turned the rudder in a different direction. In place of appealing to the government to do, to save, to help, he said that the government was the heart of the problem, and that what was needed was to carry out the deepest cutbacks and thereby free resources for the private sector. He carried out the revolution and the transition from social-welfare allowances of Labor, and a long and impressive series of reforms. The result is that the economy has been extricated from its deep pit, growth rose to 5 percent, and unemployment has sharply declined: 170,000 Israelis have joined the Labor market.

But no one attributes any of this to him. Netanyahu has become a synonym for poverty and scarcity. He is the big loser.

Ariel Sharon stands head and shoulders above everyone else this year. In his second term of office, he managed not to make any mistakes. No one believed that he would form a government without Shas and with Shinui - but he did it. Even when he declared the disengagement plan, most of the public did not believe him. He executed the plan without being concerned over the intimidation of the settlers, of civil war, of blood running in the streets.

Sharon proved that the public is craving a solution; that there is a deep yearning for an agreement that would bring some peace and quiet; that the vast majority of the public has understood that in order to live in a Jewish and democratic state, we must withdraw from most of the territories. The abhorrence of the settlers is so deep, and the yearning for quiet is so great, that the majority of the public is even prepared to overlook the corruption of the Sharon family. The fact that Omri Sharon admitted and was convicted of a series of serious offenses is not making the required impression. Although the public believes that the father knew about the son's actions, this does not prevent it from supporting Kadima and giving him 40 seats.

The public is apparently placing much more weight on the hope of Sharon resolving the conflict. And what of integrity in government? After the agreement is signed, maybe there will be time enough to deal with that, too.