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Many Americans know that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke nearly four months ago, and that his Kadima Party under Ehud Olmert won the election. But they have no idea why former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost the support of the vast majority of Israeli voters, which precipitated the meltdown of Likud, the most powerful political party in the history of Israel.
I first met Ariel Sharon in 1981 at a meeting with Prime Minister Begin. Following the elections in that year, Mr. Begin rewarded Sharon for his important contributions to Likud’s narrow win by appointing him minister of defense.
In 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin made another appointment. I recommended that he appoint the bright, young Benjamin Netanyahu to a post in his government. Begin did not know Netanyahu personally, but was very aware of Benjamin’s older brother, Yonathan, who was killed in 1976 during the raid on the Entebbe Airport to free a group of Israelis and Jews held hostage after the hijacking of an Air France Airbus.
That evening, his senior adviser, Dr. Reuben Hecht, shared the good news with Netanyahu. His official appointment as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington followed soon thereafter. Benjamin Netanyahu had entered the political arena. Netanyahu later became Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. In 1988, this charismatic, erudite and articulate young Israeli was elected to the Knesset.
In 1996, the Israeli populace chose Benjamin Netanyahu as the youngest prime minister in Israel’s history – he was also the first prime minister born after Israel was recognized as a state. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon served as minister of national infrastructure, and later as foreign minister.
When Sharon was elected prime minister in 2002, he appointed Netanyahu to the post of foreign minister, where he served until appointed minister of finance in 2003. At this post, Benjamin Netanyahu led the most ambitious economic reforms in Israeli history, while in the grip of the worst recession that tiny nation had ever experienced. He cut taxes, halted the overbearing presence of banks in the financial markets, privatized the pension fund, capped public-sector hiring, trimmed social and defense spending, sold the telecom giant Bezeq, and forced Israel’s three seaports to compete with each other.
By the time he resigned from Sharon’s Cabinet, Israel’s growth rate had soared to 5.2 percent, the developed world’s highest. Unemployment had dropped from 10.9 percent to 8.98 percent. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange was among the world’s most in-demand securities exchanges, and the shekel was rock solid, even though he had inherited an economy beset by a massive terror war at home.
Many have questioned what happened to Netanyahu. Why was he defeated so soundly despite the Iran, Hamas, Syria, Iraq, bird flu and Gaza crises? Why did his amazing media skills, brilliant economic reforms, and his experience as a former prime minister not stand him in better stead? In the recent elections, Benjamin Netanyahu garnered only about one-tenth of the votes. It signaled the collapse of the most powerful party in the nation.
The answer appears that the Israelis saw in his defiance less idealism and more disloyalty. He and Sharon belonged to Likud, the party Sharon had founded. Israelis saw Netanyahu’s attempt to sink both Sharon’s government and to destroy Ehud Olmert’s future as opportunistic.
As minister of finance, Netanyahu had the full support of Prime Minister Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. However, when he challenged Sharon and the Likud in an attempt to overthrow the government, Sharon simply left Likud and formed the Kadima Party. If Netanyahu had stayed in the government, Likud would have won the election with a Knesset majority and it is likely that Benjamin Netanyahu would be Prime Minister today.
In his urge to wrest control from Sharon, Netanyahu lost everything. He failed to derail the engagement plan, abandoned his own economic reforms before they were completed, and lost the public’s sympathy and respect. Israelis saw his move as being bitter and disloyal – and rewarded Ehud Olmert for his loyalty to Prime Minister Sharon.
Soldier, diplomat, ninth prime minister of Israel, the brother of an Israeli war hero, but no longer a current political force in the Israeli government.
With this stunning defeat of the Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu has time to sit and reflect on his campaign and on the value of loyalty.
Benjamin Netanyahu, 57, was elected as Israel’s youngest PM at the age of 47. Israel’s other prime ministers were older when elected to the office. Ariel Sharon was 73 when voted into office; Yitzhak Rabin, 70; Shimon Peres, 72; Yitzhak Shamir was 71; and Menachem Begin was 64 when elected prime minister of Israel. It appears that Netanyahu’s destiny is tied to the number 7. It is entirely possible that Benjamin Netanyahu, at the age of 67, could again become prime minister in Israel, but next time hopefully a kinder and gentler soul.