If we were to attribute a degree of malevolence to Ehud Olmert, we would say that the survey results being published here will bring a smile to his lips. Not because his situation is so great - it isn't - but rather because every one of the prime minister's rivals, without exception, is hanging on by the skin of his teeth. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, queen of the class, the star of all the surveys, is taking a nose dive, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is accumulating more opponents than supporters, and Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu is also taking a beating.
Make no mistake: All of these people are still in better shape than Olmert, but in this public opinion poll, for the first time, their popularity is decreasing and his is rising - or at least remaining stable. Critical, but stable. In a week like this, when the flu afflicted him and police investigators knocked on the door of his residence twice, even this achievement, spiced with Schadenfreude, is cause for rejoicing. I was not mistaken, we can imagine Olmert saying to himself himself, when I said at the Kadima meeting on March 15: I know that I am not popular, but this is my place of work. This has pretty much proved itself. The public is beginning to grow accustomed, to adjust. I'm still not popular, but the public makes a distinction between who I am and what I am doing. My talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are winning clear support: Half of the public supports them! Since the war I haven't seen numbers like these next to my name, except in a negative, scornful and degrading context.
Most of the public does indeed support the talks, but in the same breath is suspicious of the prime minister's motives. So what, Olmert will say. The motive isn't important; the result is. And if one-third of the public thinks that I am motivated by "a genuine desire to advance the peace process," as far as I am concerned, that is a huge accomplishment. After all, it wasn't very long ago that the proportion of those who supported me were like the percentage of fat in dietetic cheese, and now 34 percent believe in the sincerity of my intentions.
The not-so-bad marks that Olmert receives in the political context are testimony to the success of Minister Without Portfolio Haim Ramon's thesis. When Ramon returned to the government, he asserted: "Only a diplomatic process will save Olmert. Without a diplomatic process all of us are finished." Ramon was correct, in part. There is indeed approval of the move, but it is not translated into personal support for the person who is leading it. Satisfaction with Olmert's functioning is still very low (15 percent) - apparently because of the investigations, because of the war and because Olmert is Olmert. Popular is evidently one thing he will never be.
Exactly two months ago the Haaretz-Dialogue poll, under the supervision of Prof. Camille Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, examined the extent of the suitability of a number of people for the position of prime minister. The results for Olmert, Livni, Barak and Netanyahu were, respectively: 18 percent, 40 percent, 36 percent and 51 percent.
This week a similar examination was made and it emerged that the recent holidays and vacations have done something to Israelis: As though with a magic wand, with no explanation, the three leading candidates lost altitude and only one person raked in 2 percent for himself. Guess who? Netanyahu plummeted to 41 percent, Barak to 23 percent, Livni to 28 percent and Olmert, modestly, crept up 2 percent, to 20. For him, having the same number in the tens column as Livni and Barak is no laughing matter. Beyond the numerical amusement there is an important political dimension here: His real competition is against those two, who are competing with him in the same electoral playing field. If both are plunging suddenly and he is gaining strength, even a little, it is sign that not all is lost as far as he is concerned. It is a sign that in the future fight for the leadership of Kadima (if he participates in it), he still has something to say.
The blow that Livni is suffering according to the survey is a double whammy - both with respect to suitability for the position of prime minister, and concerning the measure of satisfaction with her functioning. For many months Livni was perched at the head of the parade, with 50 percent support and with relatively low levels of opposition. In this week's poll, for the first time, she has plummeted to 40 percent satisfaction. What is worse as far as she is concerned is that for the first time the rate of dissatisfaction with her (42 percent) is higher than the rate of satisfaction. Perhaps this is because she keeps quiet a lot, or because Ramon is taking a center stage in the political arena, or because of Barak. Her decline began after he entered the government.
Not that Barak has cause for rejoicing: The percentages of satisfaction with regard to his functioning are rising gradually, but the percentages of dissatisfaction are rising more rapidly. The more he establishes himself as defense minister, the more people are forming an opinion about him - but 70 percent of the "floating votes" seem to have a negative one. Barak's dilemma now is this: To change this situation, should he prolong as much as possible his presence at the Defense Ministry, or should he hasten to find himself an excuse to resign and flee in order to distance himself from Olmert and the government? Apparently being a member of this club is not doing the minister a whole lot of good.
Kerosene and a match
In a private conversation about a month ago, Ehud Barak admitted that it is possible that his public commitment during the primaries for the Labor Party leadership "to terminate the partnership with Olmert" upon submission of the final Winograd might have been a mistake. "Maybe I shouldn't have been dragged into responding [to the interim report]," Barak mused out loud. Mistake or not, he is now trapped and shackled. The remarks he made at that press conference with Labor MK Ophir Pines were crystal clear: He has no escape route, no way out, except at the highest price - the price paid by a politician who zigzags. This is a price that Barak cannot pay. He will have to stand by his promise and lead his party out of the government, even if Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, two of Barak's loyalists in the cabinet, barricade themselves on the roofs of their ministries and pour kerosene over themselves while waving a lit match about. At the time they warned Barak about a commitment like that; if indeed the final Winograd report is published in the near future, they will eat its bitter fruit with much regret. And then, there's Education Minister Yuli Yamir and Culture, Science and Sport Minister Raleb Majadele. In Barak's circles they are considered to be part of Olmert's crowd. When people talk to the culture minister about leaving, according to close associates of Barak, Majadale starts to shout: "What do you mean, resign? We were elected to serve the people! Democracy!"
Barak will have no alternative, apparently. People forget that a few months ago the Labor Party Central Committee ratified the formulation of his commitment about leaving the government, so that it is already considered to be the party's decision. In the meantime a certain amount of disquiet has developed vis-a-vis Barak, because of his tough conduct, his hyper-security orientation toward the Palestinians in the West Bank, and the image he has created for himself as someone who does not believe in the diplomatic possibility of the Olmert-Abu Mazen talks.
A number of people in the Labor Party, such as Pines, Minister Without Portfolio Ami Ayalon, MK Eitan Cabel and MK Ephraim Sneh, are making no effort to conceal their criticism of Barak, who is finding a place for himself in the political niche between Olmert and Netanyahu. Pines is critical mostly in closed conversations. "The chairman of the Labor Party has to be the head of the peace camp," he keeps saying. Said Cabel this week: "I would like to see Barak more active in this area." Newly minted minister Ayalon has been warning in conversations with people in the Labor Party: "Our party mustn't deviate from the very clear ideological line that it has been taking in recent years with respect to the outlines for ending the conflict with the Palestinians." Sneh's criticism is far more detailed and pointed. On Sunday he will voice it at a meeting with his supporters.
At this stage, the negative views of Barak are not really being publicized. Even if they will be, it's doubtful that Barak will shed a tear. Indeed, this is exactly the place where he wants to be. In any case he does not believe that anything will come of the process being undertaken by Olmert and Abu Mazen, and he has no interest in being a party to that celebration. At the beginning of the week the directorate of Meretz-Yahad met and took a decision that, on the one hand, encourages Olmert to move forward in the process, and on the other, "expresses profound disappointment with the behavior of the Labor Party headed by Ehud Barak, which has become a right-wing 'marker' in the government."
Because Meretz is not interesting, no newspaper published its decision. Barak's people were, in fact, sorry about that: Any scolding from leftist Meretz plays into the hands of the party headed by him, just as any "rightist" statement by Barak brings another few votes from people of the left on behalf of Meretz.
In any event, Barak's people are promising that in about 10 days, after his return from a working visit to the United States, he will convene the Labor Knesset faction for a discussion of foreign policy at which, for the first time, he will expound upon his diplomatic doctrine extensively and in detail. "This will be his Herzliya Conference," promises an associate of the Labor Party chairman, referring to the annual event at which senior policy-makers deliver important speeches. Barak has asked asked, of all people, that the moderator of that event be Ephraim Sneh - the man he deposed from the position of deputy minister of defense. Barak believes in honey traps.
Who wants Avigdor?
Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman has again proved that he is the most eclectic, most versatile politician in these parts. In a single week, in a single day, he managed to arouse against himself the left - which accused him of wild incitement with regard to those whom Lieberman defines as "kapos" (i.e., Israelis who try to bring about the arrest of senior Israel Defense Forces officers aboard) - and the right, which has charged him with being "the new Beilin," referring to dovish Meretz MK Yossi Beilin (because of Lieberman's proposal to transfer parts of East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty as part of an exchange of territories in a final status agreement). The impression is that Lieberman likes to confuse us, to cause to wonder each time anew about who and what he is. To those around him he looks like someone who zigzags wildly, to the point of losing his identity, between various camps and various positions: One day he is planted deeply in the right, then he embarks on a flirtation with Netanyahu, and today he is again buddy-buddy with Olmert. In passing, he bad-mouths the left and in the same breath reiterates a proposal that was included in his party's platform in 2004 to transfer neighborhoods and refuge camps in East Jerusalem to the Palestinians - and it was only on Wednesday that the Yisrael Beiteinu central committee decided that the "red line" that will be presented to Olmert before the Annapolis conference is maintaining the unity of Jerusalem. So, go figure out what Lieberman is up to. You can never tell whether this restlessness is a manifestation of political distress or just an intellectual amusement at our expense. The media tend to attribute to him personal and political sophistication and complexity. But sometimes, with so many sparks of genius flying, it is really hard to understand him. It is hard not to admire his courage and his originality. A politician who does things that are seemingly contradictory to his political DNA is a rare breed. There isn't anyone today who is not talking about his proposal to swap territories, a suggestion that is both logical and crazy.
The minister of strategic affairs will say that the neighborhoods he is talking about are in any case not part of Jerusalem, but actually they are, according to the municipal boundaries. In the public opinion poll published here, Yisrael Beiteinu voters were asked whether they support transferring certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Seventy percent of them replied: No! So, Lieberman is challenging his voters. But in the survey, which was conducted on Tuesday night, a day after the storm he kicked up, he still has 10 Knesset seats so that at least for the moment there are no casualties to "our forces."
"I love to swim against the current," says Lieberman. "I don't line myself up according to public opinion polls. That is done by other people on the political scene." One wonders to whom he is referring. His Knesset faction colleagues are worried. They are afraid that the party will be harmed electorally because of the leader's tendency to flit about. "I am the sane and pragmatic right," he says. "I am not part of the loonies of the right - [Ichud Leumi-National Religious Party MK] Effie Eitam, [Ichud Leumi-NRP MK] Zevulun Orlev and Baruch Marzel - and I am certainly not part of the loonies of the left: Yossi Beilin, [Meretz MK] Zahava Gal-On and the Gush Shalom people."
Yesterday he met with Tony Blair, the Quartet envoy, and with David Welch of the U.S. State Department. He had one message to convey to them, and he conveyed it with typical directness: I, Lieberman, and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai of Shas, are holding Olmert's coalition together. If he goes too far in Annapolis, he will be left without a coalition. So you better not press too hard, because in the end you will be left without peace and without Olmert.
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