Despite serving assiduously in each other’s cabinets, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu intensely disliked one another. David Landau, author of Arik, The Life of Ariel Sharon details how Netanyahu publicly ridiculed Sharon during Bibi’s first stint as Prime Minister. One Likud figure tells Landau that ‘Sharon’s attitude to Bibi was one of contempt and revulsion but it was always blended with admiration and fear.’
It’s unclear to what extent – if any – Netanyahu feels himself to be in Sharon’s (literally and figuratively enormous) shadow. But he used the recent Israel-UAE normalisation agreement to start a PR blitz pushing a narrative that his achievements not only dwarf Sharon’s, but those of all previous leaders since David Ben-Gurion.
The truth is the Abraham Accords were historic enough without Bibi’s hyperbole. And just because Netanyahu doesn’t carry a credit card or pay for ice cream doesn’t mean he can convince the public that there’s such a thing as a free lunch.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s ‘peace for peace’ claims seemed even hollower when set against reports that he suspended plans for annexing the West Bank and closed his eyes to the American sale of F35s to the Emiratis.
Yet while Netanyahu disparaged Sharon (who was known to like a lunch or two) and his predecessors, he has adopted some of his guiding principles.
The first is to always stay in the game come what may. Reflecting back on his career, Sharon would say that one should always keep one’s hands on the wheel. ‘At times you are up, at times you are down. But the wheel keeps moving,’ he would recount.
Sharon’s second principle was preventing being forced into what he termed the coralles, the narrow path (without an exit point) that cattle walk down on their way to be slaughtered. He was constantly concerned about being forced by events towards a political downfall from which he could not escape. He always strove to keep his options open.
Indeed, these two principles explain many of Netanyahu’s recent decisions.
He upgraded the first by holding tightly onto the ‘Prime Ministerial wheel’. Whether indicted on corruption charges, challenged by Likud rivals, or seemingly unable to scrounge a coalition of 61 Knesset seats after three consecutive elections, Netanyahu continued to hang on for dear life to the Prime Ministerial wheel. He knew once he let go, he’d be lost.
And whenever he saw himself being boxed in politically, diplomatically or judicially, Netanyahu forced his way out of the corralles. He promised to keep the rotation agreement ‘without tricks or shticks’ but within three months he was energetically plotting an exit strategy. The evidentiary phase of his trial is set for January? He may seek to further delay it. Positions of police commissioner, state attorney and attorney general need to be filled? He’ll try and influence it.
Anything to not be led down the political path whose final stop is the end of his premiership.
The 1,000, 2,000 and 4,000 dollar question is whether this is still possible.
On the one hand, the centre-left opposition is fractured. And Blue and White’s electoral strength suffered a mortal blow when Benny Gantz and co facilitated Netanyahu staying in Balfour street.
On the other hand, Corona daily cases are rocketing. Unemployment is remarkably high. And the clock is ticking towards November 2021 when the rotation agreement with Gantz is due to be implemented.
One more throw of the dice remains – the automatic dissolution of the Knesset in late December following the failure to pass the state budget. It would be a deeply cynical move. But perhaps Netanyahu hopes that – flying on the coattails of his foreign policy success – he and his allies can sweep a Knesset majority.
Questions remain as to whether Netanyahu’s allies will stand by him. A decision to curfew some Charedi towns may have fractured the long standing ultra-Orthodox marriage of convenience with the thrice wedded Premier. Suspending annexation may have lost Netanyahu the support of the pro-settler camp and Yamina.
There will be many more twists and turns in the Netanyahu saga. But somewhere, in an afterlife the secular Sharon never believed in, perhaps he is enjoying seeing his rival squirm.