When Tzipi Livni tells President Shimon Peres on Sunday that she is unable to form a government, she will suffer the worst of all political fates: She will look like a loser. She tried to form a government, but failed.
Her winning image, already cracked by her narrow victory over Shaul Mofaz in Kadima's leadership primary, will be dealt another blow.
Claiming that she always preferred elections, but "examined the option" of forming a government for the sake of stability, will not help. It will recall Ehud Barak's excuses after the Camp David Summit - that he was only trying to see whether he had a partner for a peace deal, and the answer was no. Because Livni's actions show that she wanted to be prime minister now, without elections. Her confidants convinced her that it was better to run as a sitting premier.
Peres will be able to sympathize with Livni: He is the last person to have tried and failed to form a government, when his "stinking maneuver" of 1990 went awry.
In both cases, after a sitting premier was ousted, his chief rival tried to form a government without calling elections. And in both cases, the ultra-Orthodox parties held the key to the success of their efforts - Shas for Livni, Agudat Yisrael for Peres - but ultimately decided against joining a leftist government.
Livni's associates accuse Shas of wasting time on empty talks when it never actually intended to join the government. Shas insists that it negotiated in good faith, but Livni did not offer it enough money.
Livni did well to set herself a deadline of Sunday, the eve of the new Knesset session, rather than using the full time allotted her.
She thereby prevented additional humiliation and showed herself as being unwilling to pay any price for power, unwilling to lose her credibility as "a different kind of politician." And that is how she will portray herself in the upcoming campaign: as someone unwilling to give in to Shas' extortion, as someone whose first consideration is the good of the country.
But while Livni will start her campaign with public support, she will be doing so from a position of political weakness - her failure to form a government. And she will have none of the benefits of incumbency. Ehud Olmert will remain prime minister for another several months, and enjoy every moment. He will determine the budget; he will conduct the diplomatic negotiations.
And Livni, meanwhile, will be fighting for her political life against Barak. They will be vying for the same voters and the same donors, enabling Likud to simply stand aside and let them destroy each other.
Yet a Labor-Kadima merger is not currently in the cards: If the failed coalition talks proved anything, it is just how deep the distrust between Livni and Barak runs.
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