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Another Likud Convention: The Arik and Bibi Show

09 June 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Israeli PM Ariel (Arik) Sharon knows how to play Likud Conventions, and with the Labor party dying a superfluous existence, it’s the only game in town.  Not so long ago Sharon supporters were in the opposition, busy booing the prime minister (or anyone else they did not agree with), now the tables have turned.  The PM was incurring the wrath the anti-Road Map right wing who accused him of “surrendering to terror”.  Being heckled, booed and shouted down during almost his entire speech, Sharon for sure enjoyed every moment.  The more he ‘suffers’ at Likud events such as conventions, party faction meetings and ministerial briefings, the greater his popularity with the Israeli public.  The Americans and even the Europeans cut him slack and appreciate his facing down the right - wingers in his own party.

Sharon is a feisty guy, having spent most of his life fighting one war or another.  This time he is battling on three fronts:  against terrorism, for peace and in favor of a strategic relationship with the US.  The first is being won but 100% victory can never be expected, the second is only a pipe dream since the Palestinians support Arafat and terrorism and the third is most important in the long run.  The two biggest media events of the recent past are the least important, his meetings with Palestinian PM Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and the abuse he suffered at the Likud Convention.  He knows neither can deliver on what they are demanding or promising.  But he goes through the obligatory motions.

Despite all the noise, the government and his party must line up behind him.  The most significant speaker yesterday was Finance Minister Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, leader of the supposed right wing opposition.  Not only did he abstain at the cabinet meeting vote on the Road Map, but he called on his rowdy oppositionist supporters to close ranks and back the PM’s efforts.  He spoke of the need for Palestinians to rule themselves without endangering Israel’s security, referring to the re-division of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) as part of the solution. Sounds very much like a demilitarized Palestinian mini-state.  There is no big difference between Sharon and Netanyahu.  The Likud opposition does not reflect the opinions of many who voted for the party (meaning for Sharon) and certainly is not representative of Israeli public opinion.

Most significantly, Netanyahu wants the PM’s post after Sharon, so he shifted to the center.  As finance minister he needs the $9 billion in American loan guarantees and another $1 billion grant.  He wants the Israeli public and the world at large to see him as a responsible leader, one capable of making a secure peace.  He cannot vote against the Road Map, but he can abstain.  He can run interference for Sharon, moderate the right wing opposition and show leadership skills.  So he did all.

First he defeated the Histadrut and won the Knesset vote for his economic plan, now he has shifted center on foreign policy and defense.  Sharon will not be PM forever and Netanyahu in his mid – 50’s has a long career in front of him.

Yesterday former PM Netanyahu began his national campaign to be elected prime minister once again.