I have always been a bit ambivalent about Bibi Netanyahu. He has wonderful communication skills (at least in English) and was a great spokesman for Israel when he worked in the US. During the who Wye process, he made a lot of concessions that still don’t make sense. And if you believe some of the recent reports, if Bibi held out a bit more Jonathan Pollard would be living in Israel today.
Under Sharon, Netanyahu was an excellent finance minister. He put into place many of the free-market reforms that have allowed Israel to have the strong economy she displays today.
But two years ago when Netanyahu quit the Sharon government because of the disengagement plan, it seemed like an opportunistic political stunt. He knew that it was going to pass anyway so it was an opportunity to find a new niche away from Sharon. Not that Bibi was against giving up Gaza, he felt that the timing and manner of the withdrawal would lead to more terrorism. Guess what sports fans? He was right !
In todays NY Sun Hillel Halkin has an excellent article on The comeback of Bibi Netanyahu:
Welcome Back, Netanyahu
May 29, 2007
Although the results of today’s Labor Party primaries in Israel will be known too late to make it into this column, it doesn’t really matter very much. Whatever happens, it’s clear from the polls that the Labor’s current chairman, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, will be unseated; that his successor will either be the former prime minister, Ehud Barak, or the former commander of the navy and ex-head of Israel’s General Security Service, Ami Ayalon; and that in all probability, neither Mr. Barak nor Mr. Ayalon will obtain the 40% plurality needed to avoid a second-round run-off next month. One other thing is clear, too. Whoever wins, whether in a first round or a second, is likely to have, as the Labor Party’s new leader, one main goal: To hang on to his own and Labor’s place within the present coalition government while doing everything to avoid new elections, which he could not possibly win and in which he would be badly trounced by the Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu’s comeback, and with it that of the Likud, has been quite remarkable. Just a year ago the two were decimated in national elections, with the Likud dropping from the 40 Knesset seats it won under Ariel Sharon in 2005 to a mere 12, by far the worst outcome in its 35-year history. Today, the polls show it bouncing back to its 2005 strength and Mr. Netanyahu as the first choice of nearly 40% of Israel’s electorate. This comeback is even more remarkable in view of the fact that neither Mr. Netanyahu nor the Likud have been particularly active on the parliamentary or national scenes over the past year and have on the whole kept a rather low profile. And, in fact, a good part of their renewed popularity has nothing to do with anything they have done. Rather, it represents a reaction to the poor performance of the Olmert government, whose Kadima party broke away from the Likud under Ariel Sharon’s leadership in 2005, and the return of many of Kadima’s voters to their natural home in the Likud — the party in Israel that commands the strongest grass roots and the deepest loyalties. But it’s more than just that. The Likud, and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular, have rebounded spectacularly in Israeli popular opinion because they have proved to be right on two major issues. One of these is the economy. During Mr. Netanyahu’s three years as minister of finance between 2002 and 2005, when he was not without some justification accused by the Israeli Left of seeking to radically change Israeli society by means of economic “Thatcherism” or “Reaganism,” it was not yet clear what the outcome of his policies would be. Today, it is — and they have been, if anything, an even more spectacular success than Mr. Netanyahu predicted they would be. With unemployment sharply down, gross national product sharply up, the budget balanced for the first time in Israel’s history, the shekel one of the world’s stronger currencies, and Israel’s growth rate among the highest in the developed world, it is hard for Israelis to deny that Mr. Netanyahu, whatever his faults, was one of the best finance ministers — perhaps the best — that Israel ever had. The second issue is the disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005. As will be remembered, Mr. Netanyahu, after a long period of fence-sitting, came out against disengagement and resigned from Ariel Sharon’s cabinet because of it, thus helping to precipitate the split in the Likud that led Kadima’s creation. At the time he seemed to many Israelis who agreed with him about other things to be wrong both strategically and tactically: Strategically, because the Gaza disengagement was in itself a good thing, and tactically, because splitting the Likud was a bad thing. And indeed, splitting the Likud was a bad thing. But so, it is necessary to say two years later, was disengagement. Those who were for it, like myself, were wrong. Those who were against it, like Mr. Netanyahu, were right. And not only was he right, he was right for the right reasons — which is to say, not because he was ideologically opposed to any Israeli retreat from any part of “the land of Israel” (he wasn’t and isn’t), and not because he thought Israel should remain in Gaza forever (he didn’t and doesn’t), but because he thought the timing and manner of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan was misconceived. What sensible person, two years later, can quarrel with that? The facts speak for themselves. At great economic cost and at the price of a deep inner rift in Israeli society that still has not healed, 8,000 Jewish settlers were uprooted from their homes in return for supposed benefits, none of which has materialized. Gaza has become more, not less, of a military menace to Israel; Palestinian politics and the Palestinian street have become more, not less, radicalized; Israel’s public image as an occupying country has not significantly improved in the world; and further unilateral disengagement in the West Bank as a possible way of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned out to be a chimera, in large measure because of the failure of what was supposed to be its Gazan first stage. There are obvious ways in which Israel is worse off today for having evacuated the Gaza settlements; there are no obvious ways in which it is better off. The Benjamin Netanyahu who more or less predicted all this looks a lot better today than he did two years ago, when he was widely perceived as having come out against disengagement for reasons of pure political expediency. It’s no wonder that a large part of the Israeli public is today willing to give him another chance. Ami Ayalon or Ehud Barak’s future leadership of the Labor Party will be judged to a great extent by whether they will be willing to let that public have its say.