Bibi May Mount Sharon Challenge

At the moment, Benjamin Netanyahu is working under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as finance minister, but at a stop in Beverly Hills last week, Netanyahu sounded like he’d rather have Sharon’s job.

“Bibi,” who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has denied rumors that he will soon resign his post, but has been sounding more and more like a political candidate in recent months.

Most notably, he’s staked out a position opposing Sharon’s plan to evacuate settlers and troops next month from the Gaza Strip.

A withdrawal from Gaza is premature, Netanyahu said, in the absence of Palestinian leaders who are truly ready to make peace. New Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “is not dispatching terror, but not lifting a finger to stop it,” Netanyahu said.

Any sign of weakness from Israel or America, he added, such as a withdrawal from Gaza or Iraq, would be taken as a sign that terrorism works. The mixed American and Israeli audience cheered when Netanyahu voiced opposition to Sharon’s plan for a unilateral disengagement from Gaza.

“I know I don’t want to stay in Gaza forever,” Netanyahu quickly added, but “if you give something, take something!”

The event, on June 23 at the Beverly Hilton, was organized by American Friends of Likud. Before the dinner, the group’s president, Ari Harrow, made clear in an interview with The Journal, that his organization does not have an official position on Gaza withdrawal.

“The Likud is probably as splintered as one political party could be revolving around disengagement,” Harrow said.

Although American Friends of Likud does not endorse candidates in Israeli elections, many in the audience were obviously sympathetic to Netanyahu’s views and candidacy. Just before the main course, Rabbi Steven Weil of Temple Beth Jacob introduced Netanyahu as, “God willing, the future prime minister [of Israel].”

In his remarks, Netanyahu went on to compare Palestinian terrorists to Iraqi insurgents.

“Why we don’t have peace in Iraq is that America’s very existence is an affront,” he said, adding that the same type of hatred exists among Palestinian terrorists when it comes to Israel. “It’s not because we do something, it’s because we are something. It’s not a battle over borders. It’s a battle over existence.”

After the speech, Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yechiel Leiter, elaborated on Netanyahu’s positions in an interview, asserting that terrorist “violence has nothing to do with the occupation,” but is instead a product of the culture and values fostered in Palestinian communities, which reject Israel’s right to exist.

Leiter himself is a player in the Netanyahu political watch. His arrival as chief of staff last September coincided with higher-profile moves by Netanyahu, according to coverage in the Jerusalem Post. In an interview with The Journal, Leiter suggested a tougher policy toward Palestinians, beyond Israel’s targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders linked to terrorism, which has drawn substantial international criticism.

“For every act of terrorism,” Leiter said, “take an Arab village.”

He attributed the idea to Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who suggested the strategy in a March 11, 2002, editorial in the Jerusalem Post. As described by Dershowitz, the tactic presumed that the villages in question would have to be known bases for terrorism.

Israeli elections will probably take place in 2006, but could happen sooner if the Gaza disengagement causes a substantial defection from Sharon’s governing bloc. Sharon’s political fate, and Netanyahu’s potential challenge, could hinge inevitably on the success of disengagement.

“It’s a fairly safe bet that if a primary [election] were announced today, [Netanyahu] would challenge Sharon,” Leiter said.

Netanyahu’s comments on Israel’s economy, in particular, were suffused with campaign-style rhetoric. He credited his fiscal reforms with rescuing the Israeli economy from collapse.

“You have to have free markets,” he said. “What we had was a highly monopolized, highly taxed economy.”

Netanyahu battled unions, lowered taxes and privatized industries in his quest to raise Israel to the top 10 nations in terms of per capita gross domestic product within 10 years.

Critics have accused Netanyahu of substituting private monopolies for the former public monopolies, an exchange that primarily benefited the rich rather than the average worker. Netanyahu acknowledged and responded to his critics by insisting that new low-paying jobs are but an early step in any economic recovery.

Netanyahu also emphasized the importance of the state’s ability to differentiate between citizens who can work — but refuse — and those who are physically unable.

To illustrate his philosophy during the informal dinner speech, he told of his meeting with a Likud supporter and the man’s unemployed 30-year-old son.

“What can you tell my son?” Netanyahu said the man asked. “Get a job!” Netanyahu said. “Any job! Don’t come to me! Clean floors. Work in restaurants! That is dignity.”