Rattling the Cage: Land of milk and honey

A true Golden Age began nearly 2 years ago when Ariel Sharon announced the disengagement plan.

We in Israel are living in a true Golden Age. It began nearly two years ago when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the disengagement plan. Soon afterward came an even greater thing the effective end of the intifada, thanks to Israel's steady military pressure. Meanwhile the economy began growing again (though not for the poor), mainly because of the downturn in terror and the rebound in the world hi-tech industry. Then, last month, the disengagement was carried out, much more smoothly than anyone expected, and the world, including even countries like Pakistan, began warming up to Israel and its long-despised leader. Monday night marked another milestone in this shining era Sharon's defeat of Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud right-wing in the party's Central Committee. Despite what many commentators are saying, there is no split in the Likud, not now, not anymore. There's no paralyzing dissension in the government, either. Just the opposite Sharon has clear sailing ahead. With Netanyahu now having lost one battle too many to him, the old bulldozer has no rivals for power, nobody who can lead a rebellion against him. The Likud cabinet ministers, MKs and party hacks who went against him will fall meekly into line or be thrown out into the cold, and the only Likudniks willing to face the cold are true-believers like Uzi Landau a small minority. All the rest belong to Sharon. FOR THE first time since unveiling the disengagement plan, he has virtually absolute power in Likud. The way things are going, he will win the party primaries, to be held by April, against only token opposition. The last vote of the Likud membership the 60%-40% rejection of the disengagement plan in the May 2004 referendum should not be taken to mean that a majority of the 132,000 members are right-wing and anti-Sharon. In the referendum, the membership at first had been expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of disengagement, but the settlers' extraordinary campaign kept Sharon's forces completely off the street and, to a large measure, away from the polls. That won't be the case in next year's primary. Disengagement is over, Gush Katif is lost, there's nothing left to fight for, at least nothing that's pressing. The Yesha Council will not go to war for Netanyahu, whom they don't trust, and who may not run anyway; his popularity in the Likud seems to be sinking by the hour. All that will stand in Sharon's way in the primary will be the desire for revenge by a relatively small number of diehards. So as things stand, he's going to be leader of the Likud and prime minister for as long as his health holds out, which, despite his 77 years and about 350 pounds, looks like at least a few more years. THE ONE thing that could damage Sharon, that could make him vulnerable to a right-wing challenge within Likud, is if terror takes hold in Israel again, especially terror from Gaza. Then disengagement would be judged a failure and he would be judged responsible. And if such terror could not be put down, those judgments would be right. But I don't think it's going to happen, and what we've seen in the last week is the reason why because Israel has no patience for terror from Gaza, and the terrorists are getting the message. After a few days' exchange of fire that Hamas and Islamic Jihad got much the worse of, they're calling for a truce. The Kassams from Gaza have all but stopped, at least for the time being. Yes, the terrorists killed an Israeli in the West Bank, and they will try to kill more, but Israel has kept a lid on the intifada there for nearly two years and isn't about to let it blow off. From Gaza, there may well be more Kassams now and then, but the terrorists are already learning that these attacks are not worth it for them, and Sderot, I'm convinced, will soon be as safe as Kiryat Shmona. Unilateral withdrawal worked in Lebanon and it will work in Gaza. And Israel's era of good fortune will continue, at least until Sharon leaves the scene. HE IS NOW in a sweet spot that very few elected leaders ever find he faces no political opposition, and everything on his agenda is backed overwhelmingly by the public. This means he doesn't have to "spend political capital" the more he advances his agenda, the more political power he attains, and the easier it becomes to advance his agenda further. Most importantly, his goals are not only popular, but worthy. By doing good, Sharon also does well. His overriding goal is to deter terror from Gaza and keep it in check in the West Bank. Then I would say he wants to capitalize on the world's nod of approval to Israel since disengagement and develop relations with Pakistan, the Gulf states and other traditional enemies that have been softening their attitudes, or at least their rhetoric. All of the above is good for the Israeli economy, and the major economic change Sharon and his new finance minister, Ehud Olmert, are preparing is aimed at the country's worst domestic problem poverty. There will be no social democratic upheaval, but at least some of the damage done to the poor by Netanyahu's budget cuts will be undone. This, incidentally, should further raise Sharon's stock among Likud voters, while lowering Netanyahu's even more, to the extent that this will still be possible. AS FOR the dismantling of more settlements in the West Bank, I think this will come, but it won't even be on the table for at least another year or so. And while I think Sharon will eventually resume the process of closing out the occupation, I'd be surprised if he finishes the job. That will likely be for his successors to do. For now, I wish him continued health in the New Year, for his sake and ours. This has been a great year for Israel, greater than anybody thought it would turn out, and I expect next year also to be a very good one. This is a Golden Age we're living in, brought to us by a golden-ager who, improbably, unbelievably, has become Israel's golden boy.