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Ehud and Ehud

Ehud Olmert wants Ehud Barak to win the Labor Party primaries and replace Amir Peretz in the Defense Ministry. There is close political coordination between Olmert and Barak, conducted mainly via the Labor ministers who oppose their party's chair.

Ehud Olmert wants Ehud Barak to win the Labor Party primaries and replace Amir Peretz in the Defense Ministry. There is close political coordination between Olmert and Barak, conducted mainly via the Labor ministers who oppose their party's chair. Olmert's constant efforts to make the defense minister look ridiculous are designed to help Barak in the contest. This exercise is succeeding, and Peretz repeatedly falls into Olmert's traps, as in the confrontation between them at the cabinet meeting two days ago.

Ehud and Ehud complement one another in many ways in spite of the difference in their personal backgrounds. There are no ideological differences between them; both are willing to evacuate territories and do not believe the Arabs. Both have a hedonistic image, with a fondness for luxury homes, first-class flights and cigars. Both are centralized managers who tend to get involved with details. Both have taken risks that caused them to crash politically, one in peace and one in war. The differences between them are evident in their hobbies - soccer versus classical music and history - and in their relations with their surroundings. One Ehud is vulnerable and quick to anger, and the other avoids confrontations and ambushes his rivals with tricks.

When Barak speaks about the army and strategy his words sound like clear water in comparison with the boastful nonsense of "civil-social" Defense Minister Peretz. It is hard to compete with Barak's experience, his analytical ability and his familiarity with the territory. But in spite of his claims that he has changed, and his efforts to be more attentive, he still finds it difficult to listen to his interlocutors. His listeners will always come away with the feeling that Barak is smarter than they are.

Olmert, on the other hand, understands very little about the army and mathematical models of strategy, but no one has more expertise in politics, and as the manager of the coalition he puts even the legendary Ariel Sharon in the shade. Olmert's brilliant maneuver of bringing Avigdor Lieberman into the government is worthy of being studied in advanced courses in schools of government. His bureau is run smoothly and without leaks. In short, he has everything Barak lacks as prime minister.

Olmert's survival strategy has two stages. First to get through the Winograd Committee safely and to close the file on the war in Lebanon, and then to wait for Barak to join him and to present the public with a government of hope and change. The combination of the arrogant strategist and the backslapping politician looks promising on condition that each of them compensates for the other's shortcomings rather than reinforcing them.

We can understand Olmert's desire to work with a defense minister who thinks like him, who will provide his government with the experience and depth it so badly lacks. But it is a costly transaction in which Olmert is trying to buy time as prime minister, and in exchange he is pawning his party's future. The analysis is simple: The coming elections will be decided by the centrist voters who are now represented by the 29 Kadima MKs and 11 Yisrael Beiteinu MKs. According to the surveys, both parties are going to disintegrate, and the question is who will pick up the pieces.

A Peretz victory in Labor will keep away the center-left electorate and turn it into a party of strident social activists. Barak and his friends will desert and join their ideological partners in Kadima to run against Likud.

If Ami Ayalon wins, the security-conscious element of Labor will remain, but will have difficulty attracting votes from the center and will be pushed to the left-wing slot. But if Barak wins, he will turn Labor into Kadima 2 and will pull the voters over to Olmert. Israel will return to a two-party system, and the "big bang" will be erased.

Olmert is aware of this scenario. For him the best thing would be if Barak loses the primaries and finds consolation in the defense portfolio, without political power. In that way Olmert will benefit from Barak's advice and his knowledge of the army, and will not risk seeing Barak being crowned as his successor. But that does not seem likely. If Olmert wants Barak at his side, he will have to buy the whole package: authority in matters of defense in exchange for pawning the party.

If that is the case, why should Olmert agree to such a costly deal? For a simple reason: In his political situation he has very few cards to play. Even before the Labor primaries he has to get through Winograd and the investigations and irritations of the state comptroller. And when one's credit runs out there is no choice but to go to the gray market, where the interest rates are prohibitive and the chances of getting out of the mire are in doubt.