As I interviewed now former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu last Wednesday, it was clear that he was in the midst of a personal struggle. As he laid out the ways he felt his presence in the government had mitigated some of the enormous damage the Sharon-Peres government's withdrawal and expulsion plan from Gaza and northern Samaria will cause to Israel's security, it was evident to me that for him it was not enough. And he was right.
Netanyahu has led the campaign to refuse the bizarre American demand that Israel rearm the Palestinian Authority's militias which themselves are deeply involved in terrorism. But, as he stated, the government's recent decision to relinquish control over the strategically vital Philadephi Corridor, which connects Gaza to the Sinai, together with its intention to enable the creation of a seaport in Gaza over which Israel will exert no security control, "will create a highway for the transfer of terrorists and terror materiel."
So at the end of the day, what difference will it make if in addition to the Katyusha rockets, the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the RPGs and the C-4 plastic explosives that will no doubt be pouring into Gaza the PA gets a million rounds of M-16 and AK-47 ammunition courtesy of the Israeli or American taxpayers?
It is difficult to see what Netanyahu, who wishes to replace Ariel Sharon as prime minister, has to gain politically from his resignation from the government. Sharon, in appointing his lackey Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to replace Netanyahu in the Finance Ministry, has now effectively taken over the only enclave of the government he did not previously control. There can be little doubt that he will use the significant financial reserves Netanyahu was able to build up for the country over the past two and a half years to continue buying off ministers, Knesset members and party hacks and so reinforce his power for the foreseeable future.
As a regular member of Knesset, Netanyahu today doesn't even have the ability to gain a leadership position in the parliament. All the senior committees have chairmen who will not budge.
Even receiving membership in the powerful and prestigious finance or foreign affairs and defense committee will be difficult. Aside from this, he will have a reduced personal staff and thus a limited ability to reach out to party members to whom, anyway, he will no longer have any favors to offer in exchange for their support in the party. The same is the case for the remaining Likud ministers in the government. Danny Naveh, Yisrael Katz, Tzahi Hanegbi, Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat have nothing personal to gain from supporting Netanyahu. And the same is the case with the deputy ministers.
Sharon, for his part, has the media firmly in his court. In the wake of Netanyahu's surprise announcement, the chief anchors in the television studios wasted no time in sanctimoniously accusing Netanyahu of political opportunism. Whereas former prime minister Ehud Barak has no trouble getting long interviews on television and radio, it is hard to imagine that Netanyahu will receive anything other than a wall of silence from the media that will likely do everything it can to encourage the public to forget about him.
The ideological Right, led today by MK Uzi Landau – the same camp that idiotically brought down Netanyahu's government in 1999 and brought down Yitzhak Shamir's government in 1992 – had difficulty hiding its nastiness upon hearing word of his resignation. Landau, in threatening to challenge Netanyahu in the Likud leadership race, was no doubt a major factor in Netanyahu's decision to resign. If Landau had carried through on his threat he would have handed the Likud leadership to Sharon on a silver platter by splitting the nationalist camp in the Likud between himself and Netanyahu. Always the poor politician, Landau, the ideological purist, could barely muster a dozen icy words of support for Netanyahu's resignation on Sunday evening.
IN SPITE of all of this, Netanyahu's decision to resign one week before the expulsion of Gaza's Jews begins demonstrates three things that are important in and of themselves.
Netanyahu's willingness to risk his political career rather than share ministerial responsibility for a policy that will wreak strategic disaster on Israel shows a strength of character and a moral backbone that are rare in politics generally and in Israeli politics specifically.
While his detractors were quick to claim that the decision was belated, the fact of the matter is that by holding out in the government for the past year, Netanyahu demonstrated extraordinary responsibility. By remaining in the government he was able to enact the most important economic reforms Israel has ever undergone. The banking reforms he pushed through the government and the Knesset will, for the first time, enable Israel to have a competitive banking system. The tax and welfare reforms he orchestrated will have a long-lasting and positive impact both on the economy and on the Israeli psyche.
As a friend quipped recently: "In Germany, when a person drives his car into a tree, people say he's an idiot. In Israel when a person drives his car into a tree, people blame the government for not having cut down the tree."
The economic reforms Netanyahu has enacted as finance minister will empower the people to take control of their financial future in a way that was impossible before he entered office. And this will do much to change the way Israelis think of themselves and the government, to the benefit of both.
Finally, in his reforms, as in his decision to quit the government, Netanyahu demonstrated a deep faith both in the wisdom of the Israeli people and in their right to have representative government. In both cases his actions show an abiding and healthy respect for the democratic process which is frighteningly absent from the present government, whose central policy of withdrawal and expulsion is the exact policy Sharon was elected to oppose.
As Netanyahu himself made clear, there is no way today to prevent the withdrawal and expulsion plan from being implemented. Perhaps now Netanyahu can mitigate some of the damage the plan will cause Israeli society. This he can do by defending the honor of the pioneers of Gush Katif by upholding the ideal of Jewish settlement of the Land of Israel even as the physical realization of this sacred ideal is being trampled.
As well perhaps, Netanyahu's resignation may finally force a debate in the US government and media on the merits of Sharon's plan which to date has been met with irresponsible and unquestioning support from the White House to the Wall Street Journal, from Congress to Commentary magazine.
Netanyahu's resignation points to two acute problems that Israel faces, both as we move into the implementation of the expulsion orders and as we look beyond these terrible events. From the moment Sharon announced the plan in December 2003, Netanyahu was faced with two equally stark choices. He could remain a cabinet minister with no power to change or meaningfully influence the government's disastrous flagship policy, or he could leave the government and continue to have no influence over the policy. The fact that this state of affairs, where a senior government minister has absolutely no influence over national policy, has been allowed to develop is atrocious.
At the same time, the fact that Sharon has managed to engineer a situation where he can trample the wishes of his voters and his party and, through payoffs and odd coalitions supported by the Left, the far Left, the anti-religious secularists and the anti-Zionist Arab parties, maintain and strengthen his grip on power, should long ago have sounded the alarm bells for all who care about the state of Israeli democracy.
More than anything, Netanyahu
9;s resignation shows that while Sharon's government has lost all remaining vestiges of integrity, Netanyahu himself, in risking his career to keep faith with his conscience and his voters, has proved his worthiness to lead. Those who care about the future of this country must bury the hatchets that divide them and find the practical, workable and democratic ways to cooperate in calling for elections, with Netanyahu at the helm of the Likud, as quickly as possible.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.