Shalom seeks to steer Likud ship

Foreign Minister lacks bravado of Likud rivals Netanyahu and Mofaz.

silvan shalom 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
silvan shalom 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The disco version of Phantom of the Opera's title song banged away on repeat. That score, renowned for its soaring passions and larger-than-life figures, seemed an odd choice of music to kick off the dour Silvan Shalom's campaign for the Likud leadership at the a Tel Aviv banquet hall on Tuesday. One of the steadiest Likud politicians over the past decade, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom lacks the bravado of his rivals for the Likud Party leadership, former commando and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and current defense minister and former general Shaul Mofaz. One of three Likud candidates with a realistic chance at winning the party's December 19 primaries, Shalom, like the others, promises to steer the rudderless faction away from shipwreck after sinking his rivals in the cutthroat lead-up to the Likud polls. But analysts and Likud insiders agree; the results of both the primaries and the March 28 Knesset election will not be pretty. Especially not for Shalom. Yet, as foreign minister, Shalom has presided over the establishment of relations with Pakistan, the resumption of contacts with half a dozen Arab countries, and warmer ties with Europe and even the UN. Unfortunately, as Shalom admitted in a telephone interview on Thursday, "Perhaps too few people have internalized this yet." For that reason, the people devouring mini-eclairs and chatting loudly at the back of the banquet hall during his first stump speech are so important to Shalom. Many of them are members of the 3,000-strong Likud central committee, a group which directs the party's agenda and, more often than not, acts as vote contractors. In a day on the campaign trail, Shalom makes hundreds of cell-phone calls, mostly to activists, as he is driven from one event to another, said members of his staff. Polls this week showed Shalom lagging behind Netanyahu and Mofaz. In one poll, just 3 percent of Israelis would consider Shalom fit to be prime minister. But Shalom, popular within Likud, isn't thinking of those polls, he said. "Right now," said the foreign minister, "what matters most are Likud voters. And they know that only I can bring Likud out of this current crisis." Born in 1958 in Tunisia, and scion of the Shalom dynasty which traces its roots back to the biblical figure Joshua, Shalom immigrated to Israel with his family at the age of one. He started his career as a journalist and held several minor government posts after joining the Knesset in 1992 before his appointment as finance minister in 2001. Shalom has managed along the way to placate most Likud power-brokers and alienate few of them. And Silvan, as he is known on the campaign trail, knows how to schmooze, only he calls it "showing respect to friends and supporters." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fled Likud's cadre of vote-brokers and the endless fawning over their infants, bar-mitzva boys and newlywed couples. But with primaries only days away, Shalom and his rivals have no choice, so they fawn on. "Showing respect" is what brought Likud's top three candidates, a handful of ministers, a dozen Likud Knesset members, and many more activists to the wedding of youngsters Assaf Uzeri and Dikla Bonish. Uzeri's mother is a prominent central committee member, and her support is crucial for victory. About 500 people packed into the colossal Khan Dekel banquet hall in Or Yehuda's "Old Industrial Center." They clumped at tables adorned by garish candelabras and smoked furiously. A purple light bathed the suited politicians, known in local parlance as "celebrity guests," and a professional videographer filmed them as they threaded their way into the hall, following waiters bearing platters overflowing with meat. Carefully choreographed, the bigwigs' aides made sure to stagger the entrances and exits of Mofaz, Shalom and Netanyahu. The laws of physics hold true even at central committee members' shindigs: no two VIPs can appear at the same gala at the same time. First Netanyahu came and left. Mofaz, dwarfed by a forest of bodyguards, shook hands, sat for a few minutes, grinned, and exited. Then Shalom arrived with his wife, Judy Shalom Nir Mozes, who hung back, her burgundy-dyed hair clearly visible among the suited figures. She smiled amiably at friends and planted kisses on political bosses. The sight of the red-topped "Judy," whose periodic diplomatic gaffes have gained her a spot on the satirical show Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country), won Shalom praise by one of the guests, an Electric Company worker and Likud member. Bringing one's wife is "a greater show of respect," said the man. Shalom also does well in the "bodyguard gap," a quota by which a minister's importance is partly measured by the number of bodyguards covering him. Nevertheless, Prof. Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Likud politics, thinks Shalom doesn't stand much of a chance. He and Mofaz will play the "ethnic card," vying for the votes of Sephardi voters, thus splitting their strength, said Cohen. But the real loser of the campaign will be the party, said Cohen. "Eventually they'll realize that this system of attracting votes is detrimental," he said. "Likud members' demands are driving MKs and ministers crazy," he said. The bottom line, continued Cohen, "is that they are all going to get walloped in the elections."