Analysis: Loyalty pays off

The distance between the Knesset offices of Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu - Room 2460 - and his Likud rival, Silvan Shalom - Room 2463 - is only a few meters. But they might as well have been kilometers away. Messages were constantly delivered from one office to another by mediators like Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu's political adviser Shalom Shlomo, his incoming cabinet secretary Tzvi Hausner and the Likud leader's longtime confidant, French businessman Meir Habib. By 10 p.m. Monday, however, it was still uncertain whether any progress had been made in more than 13 hours of shuttle diplomacy. Mediation efforts between the two men actually began not just 13 hours, 13 days or 13 months ago. Netanyahu and Shalom have been fighting for 13 years, since Netanyahu decided to limit his 1996 cabinet to 18 ministers, leaving Shalom to rotate with Michael Eitan in the lowly position of science minister. After Eitan served in the position for two years and was supposed to hand over the ministry to Shalom, Eitan tried to close the ministry down, claiming it was unnecessary. Thirteen years and many fights later, Netanyahu and Shalom are no closer. There is no trust between the two, and no one should be surprised that Netanyahu does not want to give him a position of trust like finance minister. By contrast, Yuval Steinitz has made a point of being loyal to Netanyahu, ever since Steinitz entered the Knesset for the first time to replace Netanyahu when the latter quit the Knesset after losing the 1999 election. Steinitz has also made a point of maintaining good relations with Netanyahu's wife Sara, who has a lot of influence on her husband. Sources close to Steinitz said it had been an open secret for quite some time that Steinitz would receive the Finance portfolio. Weeks of speculation about him serving under Netanyahu as a minister-without-portfolio in the Finance Ministry were intended to lay the groundwork for him being appointed finance minister. So were Steinitz's meetings with top business leaders and economists as head of the team preparing for Netanyahu's first 100 days in office. Steinitz has spoken openly for weeks about receiving "a very senior portfolio." He has hinted with his impish grin that he would be higher on the totem poll than Shalom in Netanyahu's administration. Netanyahu's associates said there was little Shalom could do to avenge his demotion from the Foreign Affairs and Finance portfolios he held before. They noted that he only had one vote in the Knesset and that they could do without it. Mediation efforts between Netanyahu and Shalom continued past press time and into the night. But if Shalom wanted a plum portfolio from Netanyahu, he apparently needed to start displaying Steinitz-style loyalty many years ago.