Netanyahu Resigns Post as Finance Minister

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Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official reason for his weekend resignation was the cabinet's final rubber stamp vote on Israel's withdrawal from its Gaza Strip settlements, which is due to begin next week. The real motivation for quitting now lies a lot more than a week away—it's next year's Israeli general election. By resigning, Netanyahu believes he'll be able to capitalize on any problems Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon runs into with the "disengagement plan," particularly if Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks over the fence into Israel once the soldiers leave Gaza.

Elections are due in Fall 2006. That means Sharon's Likud will hold primaries for the leadership in the Spring. Until now Likud Party insiders have said they'd keep Sharon as leader, if the Gaza withdrawal goes well and retains his popularity with the public. But most Likud members voted against Sharon's withdrawal in a party referendum last year and were outraged when he went ahead with his plans in spite of the vote. If the "disengagement" is followed by an upsurge in terror attacks—and everyone from Israeli military intelligence to leading Hamas figures agrees that it will—they might use that as an opportunity to ditch the prime minister. When that happens, Netanyahu may be well situated to capitalize, as the man who finally stood on principle and quit, rather than vote for the withdrawal.

Ostensibly, Netanyahu stayed at the Finance Ministry so long because he believed Israel had an economic crisis that needed to be faced. Privately he tells people that the country was "six weeks away from being Argentina" when he took over. Since Sharon unveiled his disengagement plan in December 2003, Netanyahu carped about it, but resisted right-wing pressure for him to quit because there were important free market reforms to be carried through. Now he says those reforms are done and he's free to resign.

Not quite. The cabinet votes Tuesday on the 2006 national budget, which contains many of Netanyahu's reforms. Now political insiders say there'll be some in the government who'll use the budget vote to push Sharon into early elections. Probably the old warrior will brazen out another desperate political situation, but if he fails there could be elections as early as this year. If so, Sharon knows who he'll be up against. Netanyahu wants Sharon's job, and he also wants his old position back. In a briefing with business journalists Monday, Netanyahu said: "If the public wants, it will return me to government as prime minister, and then I will serve also as finance minister." Perhaps he thinks there are more market reforms to be done, after all.