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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Ariel Sharon's loyalists were on the top of the world last night. Kadima's relatively poor showing was only a minor disappointment. They had still won, and the main thing was the complete humiliation of their biggest rival, the Likud.
For Binyamin Netanyahu, there was no consolation whatsoever. As head of the fifth-largest party he won't even be head of the right-wing opposition in the next Knesset. That's unless Ehud Olmert manages to bring off an unbelievable conjuring trick and form a coalition including Labor and the new leading party of the right, Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu.
Sharon's revenge is complete. The head of the rebel faction within the party, number 14 on the list, Uzi Landau, is also out of a job. This is the Likud's worst ever result, perhaps save for the second Knesset in the early '50s in which forebear Herut received eight seats. The remaining MKs huddled around an ashen-faced Netanyahu, who promised to carry on leading the party, but there was a conspicuous absence.
The number two on the list, Silvan Shalom, didn't wait for the results. He has been spending time the last few days reading up on the party rules to find what's the quickest way he can depose Netanyahu as leader.
Finger-pointing broke out almost immediately after the exit polls were broadcast last night; Mickey Eitan even demanded a commission of inquiry. Bibi supporters tried to shift the blame onto Shalom, but Netanyahu was the obvious culprit. He had failed in even hanging on to the party's core base of voters, assumed to be worth at least 20 MKs.
Netanyahu spent the last week touring the party's main bastions around the country. But try as he might, nothing worked. Not even when he pushed the old trusty levers of media-bashing and Shimon Peres-hatred.
The long series of political mistakes that Netanyahu made, from resigning on the eve of disengagement eight months ago, to the clumsy campaign his party waged, are of course all contributing factors to the resounding defeat, but there is a much more basic reason. The politician dubbed "The Magician" after his shock-victory in 1996 has finally run out of magic. His constituency turned against him.
Some blamed him for taking their social security benefits away, others saw him as Sharon's assassin, and the right-wingers will never forgive him for joining the battle against disengagement only at the last moment. Kadima, Israel Beiteinu, National Union-NRP, Shas, all siphoned votes off him.
One mistake he didn't make Tuesday night was to concede and resign like he did on the night of defeat in 1999 - although then, with 19 MKs in what was still the second largest party, he seemed in a much better situation. Then, Netanyahu thought that he was leaving the party in the hands of temporary caretaker Sharon and would be back in a couple of years. This time, he realizes that if he leaves, he's never coming back.
Kadima is already planning Netanyahu's next humiliation, inviting the Likud to coalition talks as a possible junior partner. Meanwhile, Bibi is this morning already gearing up for what might be his last political battle - survival as head of the Likud. For all that's worth.