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Binyamin Netanyahu's eulogies were premature.
Those who sniffed an Amir Peretz-style upset, whereby humbly born and populistic Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom would floor the American-educated and Thatcherist Netanyahu were handed a reminder that conviction still played a role in Israeli politics.
True, in abandoning Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet as late in the day as he did, Netanyahu's conduct may not have been as ideological as Uzi Landau's, and in supporting disengagement throughout much of its legislation process, his opportunism may not have been much less glaring than Limor Livnat's or Danny Naveh's, but the bottom line was that Netanyahu took an ideological stand, at a high personal price.
Yesterday's vote demonstrated that Netanyahu's relative ideological purity was what mattered most to Likud's membership. By the same token, that electorate was not impressed with Shalom's attempt to change the subject from disengagement, which he backed, to the economy, where he tried to counter Netanyahu's reforms with vintage Likud populism.
Still, Netanyahu has little to celebrate. While he has successfully restored his grip on the Likud stable, the political horses for which it once was famous have largely bolted, and Netanyahu's task between today and March 28 will be to locate and round them up. As he engages in this effort, he is likely to learn that while most Israelis appreciate his record as finance minister, they don't share his affinity for Greater Israel in general, and nationalist-clerical coalitions in particular.
In fact, the challenge ahead of him is something Netanyahu has never faced. In the past, he had to dispel criticism concerning his alleged frivolity, indecision, demagoguery and poor human relations. As finance minister, he managed to undo much of this criticism, as he displayed a clear, if controversial, vision that he realized with a determination and efficiency that were universally admired.
Now, however, he must prove that he has not lost touch with the mainstream. Moreover, in the not unlikely event that he will emerge from this election as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu will have to demonstrate the kind of patience and long-distance stamina previously displayed by Shimon Peres, following Labor's trouncing in 1977, and Ariel Sharon, following the Likud's knockout in 1999.
Finally, the Likud primary election has served another reminder that much of the public discourse concerning the economic situation is emotionally manipulative and economically unfounded. If the Netanyahu reforms have harmed as many people as Amir Peretz suggests, then that sentiment should have been pervasive among the Likud's largely working-class membership. Yet yesterday's vote demonstrated that even where populism could be expected to find a massive following, people don't so quickly buy simplistic talk of astronomic minimum wages and lavish estate taxes.
On this front, Netanyahu would do well to stick to his guns and tell his economic detractors that now not only economists have sung his reforms praises, but thousands of Likudniks have, too.
Should he do the same about the other part of his convictions, namely his reluctance to part with Greater Israel? Of course he should - not because it is popular, and not despite it being unpopular, but simply because these are his ideas, and changing one's ideas, or even just hiding them, just does not work. Ask Silvan.
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