'I have enough Iraqis," said once a typically aloof Shimon Peres, as he rejected longtime Beersheba mayor Eliyahu Nawi's quest to become a minister.
A respected jurist and one of the most successful mayors in Israeli history, Nawi was hurt, less because of the rejection, and more because of the implication that his ethnicity was more relevant than his record, which was crowned by the transformation of a dusty, windswept backwater into a modern metropolis.
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It was in that very Beersheba that the Tunisian-born Silvan Shalom was reared before launching the meteoric political career that culminated in his successive appointments as finance ad foreign minister. Now Shalom has decided to openly blame Likud's electoral catastrophe on Binyamin Netanyahu, and unseat the man who only several months ago defeated him massively in a primary election.
Having failed in an initial attempt to rally the rest of Likud's leaders for a gang-up ambush on Netanyahu, the 47-year-old Shalom chose to launch his attack by a series of interviews that dominated last weekend's papers. Shalom's analysis of his party's dismemberment is plausible: it had become too hawkish, anti-social and divided, while Netanyahu's personality chased away numerous good people and gave rise to assorted new parties, the last of which was Kadima.
The conclusion is obvious: I, Silvan, am the balanced visionary, responsible economist, seasoned diplomat, loyal team player and people's person that Netanyahu will never be, and the Likud so sorely needs. Since some people are prone to actually take this self-description seriously, and since Shalom apparently suffers from selective memory, here are some reminders that can help put things in perspective.
THE FIRST thing Silvan conveniently fails to discuss is his performance as treasurer. With formal schooling in accounting, economics and law, Shalom excelled last decade as a Knesset Finance Committee member who demonstrated the kind of fiscal and procedural knowledge few lawmakers here possess. As a deputy defense minister and science minister in the Netanyahu government he may have not been brilliant - no one ever was in those positions - but in winter 2001 he was nonetheless crowned finance minister, a token of appreciation for his loyalty to Ariel Sharon.
Yet once he made it to Israel's innermost decision-making sanctum, Shalom set aside long-term policy making, focusing instead on short-term self-promotion. He ignored warnings about an approaching economic tempest, and opted instead for baseless growth forecasts, on the basis of which he expanded the deficit, distributed political booty and dragged his feet on structural reform.
The result was Israel's worst-ever recession, including the shekel's plunge, at one point, to a historic low of 20 cents, and unemployment's rise to two-digit levels. Sharon took notice and decided to remove Shalom from the national chest. At that point Shalom deployed another weapon he now prefers to ignore - ethnicity.
Somehow, when his loss of the Treasury was but a few days away, a protest movement within the Likud began to decry it as anti-Sephardi discrimination. Whatever his role in this was or wasn't, Shalom certainly did not stand in this effort's way. While obviously unfounded, the charge began gathering a storm that disturbed Sharon sufficiently to make him offer Shalom the prestigious Foreign Ministry.
TO HAVE not sinned at that point, Shalom should have displayed two properties: humility and loyalty. The humility should have been vis-a-vis a field - diplomacy - about which he knew very little. The loyalty should have been toward the man who saved his career: Ariel Sharon. Shalom failed on both counts.
As a diplomat, he failed to establish a presence in Europe's and America's corridors of power at a time that demanded the kind of inspiration and worldliness that most of his predecessors, from Moshe Arens to Shlomo Ben-Ami, possessed, but he lacked.
As a political crony, Shalom spat in his patron's face, first by publicly attacking his - Sharon's - concept of unilateralism, then by sabotaging Labor's admission into Sharon's coalition, a move that might have deprived him of the Foreign Ministry. Even in the nasty annals of Israeli politics, such patent selfishness bears little precedent.
Now, when Shalom attacks Netanyahu's disempowerment of Likud's party center, our very own Tammany Hall, Likudniks would do well to understand what he means. Shalom means he misses, sorely, clownish but powerful hack like Uzi Cohen's habitual trampling of all standards of merit, accountability, and national interest while serving assorted sectarian, personal, tribal and vested interests.
All this would have been bad enough even had Shalom's confrontation of Sharon's been genuinely ideological. After all, rather than attempt to derail Sharon's process from within, Shalom could have resigned, like Uzi Landau and Netanyahu. That may have been more effective or less, but it certainly would have been more convincing, not to say honorable.
Yet Shalom was not out to play in the fields of honor, convictions, or ideas; he was, and remains, out to gather power. That is why as treasurer he was a populist, and that is why as foreign minister he focused not on producing a diplomatic plan of his own, but on preserving his office.
NOW, AS all this confluences into the worst crisis in Likud's history, its members must demand of Shalom to reconcile his current worship of the same disengagement that back in '04 he so pompously opposed.
They must demand of him to explain why as a cabinet member he backed the same Netanyahu reforms he now attacks, and why as treasurer he was so lethargic on reform, and led the economy to its worst years. They must remind him that Likud's party center, in which he thrived, was much more anathema to the public than Netanyahu's social skills. They must also remind him that his disloyalty to Sharon was must worse than Netanyahu's, because Bibi did not owe Sharon anything, certainly not his rise to political prominence.
Most importantly, Likudniks must understand that what Shalom offers them is an ideological non-starter, because the populist ticket has already been taken by the ascetic and humble Eli Yishai and Amir Peretz, who will always be more convincing than the glaringly nouveau-riche Shalom, who lives in a castle with his well-born wife, a shareholder in Israel's leading media powerhouse.
The same goes for the diplomatic moderation Shalom has now come to espouse; it will always sound better coming from Olmert, Mofaz and Dichter. How will Shalom's Likud be distinguished from what's already out there? Is the fact that he, Shalom, made a grand miscalculation in not joining Kadima, reason enough for the entire Likud party to be swallowed by Kadima?
Likud's only future is in refashioning itself as Israel's conservative party, a movement that will believe in small government, low taxation, economic freedom, national strength, family values and Jewish heritage. This - if properly packaged, led and timed - can capture a critical mass of Israelis. Shalom can't.