Behind Netanyahu Move, Some See Ambition, Others See West Bank Fight

Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation from the Israeli Cabinet may have come too late to scuttle Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, but it seems almost certain to change the face of Israeli politics. Leaving the Finance Ministry just 10 days before the pullout is scheduled to begin, Netanyahu threw down a challenge to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and set in motion a process that could split the ruling Likud Party.

Most pundits are convinced that the move will not derail the Gaza pullout, but it could considerably strengthen the Israeli right in its opposition to further withdrawals from the West Bank.

On the economic front, Netanyahu was widely praised as finance minister for initiating tough policies that led the economy from near collapse to robust growth. But analysts say his resignation is unlikely to lead to any major policy changes or have a lasting economic impact.

As for Netanyahu’s political future, leading pundits see in the move a huge gamble that could vault him into prime minister — or consign him to the far-right margin of Israeli politics.

At a dramatic news conference Sunday, Netanyahu gave just one reason for his resignation: The withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank will be catastrophic for Israel’s security, he said. Gaza will become a base for Palestinian terrorism and its port will be a conduit for terrorist weapons, while giving away territory with no quid pro quo from the Palestinians will encourage more terrorism, he argued.

“I cannot be party to this,” Netanyahu declared.

His forceful presentation begged a question: Why, if the policy is so dangerous, hadn’t he resigned earlier, when it might have been possible to change things?

Netanyahu replied that he didn’t believe stepping down earlier would have made any difference and that he first wanted to push through his economic reforms.

Most pundits were skeptical. Some suggested that Netanyahu was finding it increasingly difficult to explain to his staunchly right-wing family his continued service in a government whose central policy effort he so strongly opposes.

Others had more political explanations: Netanyahu’s own polls, they said, showed right-wing rebel Uzi Landau winning about 12 to 15 percent of the vote in a Likud leadership race. Those are votes Netanyahu needs if he is to have any chance of unseating Sharon.

His resignation, this theory goes, allows Netanyahu to take over from Landau as leader of the far-right in the Likud and — with those votes added to his own natural, more moderate constituency — win the party leadership.

Hanan Krystal, a veteran Israel political analyst, says Netanyahu believes the withdrawal plan will collapse under a wave of Palestinian terrorism. That will strengthen his national standing by proving his analysis correct.

Netanyahu then has a two-stage plan to regain the premiership, according to Krystal. First, he says, Netanyahu will capture the Likud by appealing to the far-right, though he knows that’s not a base to win a national election. Once installed as party leader, Krystal predicts, Netanyahu will move back to the political center, recalling concessions he made to the Palestinians as prime minister in the late 1990s.

But Netanyahu already has had some setbacks. Other cabinet ministers critical of the withdrawal plan failed to join his defection. Moreover, the mainstream press and the public largely were critical of his move.

In Yediot Achronot, an Israeli daily, the journalist Sima Kadmon slammed Netanyahu for lying about his intention to resign right up until the day before he did.

“We have already heard that it’s permissible to lie for the Land of Israel, about devaluing the currency and for security. But for a career?” she wrote.

A Yediot poll showed that 47 percent of the public thought Netanyahu was motivated not by ideology but by personal and political interests.

A poll in Ma’ariv, another Israeli paper, indicated that 47 percent of Israelis would prefer Sharon at the head of Likud, compared to only 28 percent for Netanyahu. Among Likud members, who will choose the party leader, Sharon was well ahead, by a margin of 51 percent to 34 percent.

Though Netanyahu’s move generally was welcomed on the far-right, some right-wingers dismissed it as too little too late.

Writing in Ma’ariv, political analyst Ben Caspit suggested that Netanyahu’s timing was an attempt to have his cake and eat it too. According to Caspit, Netanyahu didn’t really want to stop the withdrawal from Gaza — “because, if he did, Washington would sever all ties with him” — but he also didn’t want to be party to it “because, if he were, the Israeli right would turn its back on him.”

Some pundits argue that the importance of Netanyahu’s resignation is not Gaza but the rest of the West Bank. With Netanyahu in power or leading the opposition, right-wing settlers are convinced they’ll have a much better chance of holding on to dozens of West Bank settlements that may be targeted for evacuation in any subsequent round of withdrawals.

As for the Israeli economy, it doesn’t look as if Netanyahu’s departure will change much. In the first hour after his resignation, the Tel Aviv stock exchange fell by 5 percent, its biggest single-day downturn in three years. But the next day, after Sharon nominated Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmert as finance minister and both underlined their commitment to continuing Netanyahu’s policies, the main market indices regained between 2.5 percent and 3 percent.

“The Israeli economy is strong. It will not be hurt by Netanyahu’s resignation. But it would be badly hurt if the disengagement were cancelled or postponed,” the Yediot Achronot economic analyst Sever Plotzker wrote, because its contribution to Israel’s economic recovery “is much greater than all Netanyahu’s reforms put together.”

Sharon aides make clear that the prime minister has no intention of stepping aside for Netanyahu. The showdown within the party will come within the next few months.

If Sharon wins that contest, Netanyahu could lead a sizable faction out of Likud and join up with the far-right. If Netanyahu wins, Sharon could take Likud moderates with him into an electoral alliance with the Labor Party and Shinui.

Either way, it’s difficult to see how the Likud can remain unified with both men in it. A lot will depend on how the Gaza withdrawal plays out.

More than Netanyahu deciding the outcome of the withdrawal, the outcome of the withdrawal could decide Netanyahu’s political future.

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