August 9, 2005

Disengaging Mr. Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu did both Israelis and Palestinians a favor on Sunday when, in typically melodramatic fashion, he abruptly resigned from his cabinet post to protest Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Netanyahu performed well during the more than two years he served as finance minister. He ushered in free-market reforms that aided local businesses, calmed foreign investors' fears, cut welfare benefits and helped lift the country out of a recession. But the Israeli economy needs a restrained, orderly pullout from Gaza a whole lot more than it needs reduced welfare benefits, and neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have needed Mr. Netanyahu's political grandstanding as a cabinet member opposing the Gaza withdrawal.

Mr. Netanyahu, apparently preparing to face off against Mr. Sharon soon for the leadership of the Likud Party, said he had to resign as finance minister because of his concerns about Israel's security. He has certainly done all he can to fan Israelis' fears with fiery speeches warning that Gaza could become a base for radical Islamic terrorists. In resigning from his post, Mr. Netanyahu is making the political calculation that he can cordon off the far-right wing of Likud from Mr. Sharon, and then manage to look prescient if the Gaza pullout is a disaster.

That kind of negative wish fulfillment is hardly what this troubled area needs. Mr. Sharon should be congratulated for standing firm and proceeding with the Gaza pullout. He's bowing to a demographic reality and a realistic understanding that it makes no sense for Israel to spend the political, economic and emotional capital that it takes to keep defending a handful of Jewish settlers in an overwhelmingly Palestinian territory.

It's a pity Mr. Netanyahu is still refusing to acknowledge that reality himself.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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