"I'm very restless," said Ehud Olmert to George W. Bush at the beginning of their meeting last week.
"Why?" wondered Bush. "Because in Jerusalem they're breaking a glass now, and I'm not there," replied Olmert.
"What glass is being broken in Jerusalem?" asked Bush with concern.
"The glass at the wedding of the daughter of my good friend, Minister Eli Yishai, the chairman of Shas," said Olmert. "When you return," said Bush, "give the bride my best wishes and apologize in my name for the fact that you had to miss the wedding because of me."
Olmert told the story of his strange conversation with the president of the United States to those attending the sheva brakhot [one of several festive meals held to honor the bride and groom during the week following a wedding] last Thursday, two days after the ceremony and a day after his return to Israel. Whether or not this conversation took place, those invited to the meal - Shas leaders and senior politicians - were deeply impressed by the blessing conveyed by Olmert.
"That was a work of art by a political master craftsman," said one of those present. Olmert praised all the guests to the heavens, in very precise dosages. When he finished, Ehud Barak leaned toward him and said: "Listen, you certainly know how to give blessings." Everyone who heard Rabbi Ovadia Yosef afterwards showering praises and blessings on Olmert could not but be left with the impression that the partnership between the prime minister and Shas, and the personal alliance between him and Yishai, are stronger than ever.
Olmert knows not only how to give blessings, he also knows how to engage in politics, and when these two talents converge, all the better. He had in fact hoped to launch his renewed cabinet, which is undergoing a facelift, two days ago, but it didn't work out.
But considering the fact that only two months ago, on April 30, the date of the publication of the Winograd Committee's interim report, he was standing at the edge of an abyss, now he has good troubles: The coalition is becoming stronger; the diplomatic moves vis-a-vis Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will make it very difficult for the Labor Party to leave after the publication of the Winograd final report; and he has portfolios to distribute - and when there are portfolios, there are also people waiting in line. When the process is completed, there will be some grateful people, but there will also be those who are hurt and insulted. Moshe Arens once said: "When you decide to appoint one person out of 100, you acquire 99 enemies and one ingrate."
In general, what characterizes the Olmert government are the never-ending rounds of changes in the ministries. During the Knesset winter session there was an interminable and prolonged preoccupation with the question of who would be the minister of social affairs. Finally, Isaac Herzog was separated from the Tourism Ministry, which was given to Yitzhak Aharonovich of Yisrael Beitenu, and the session came to a close. Now, on the eve of the conclusion of the summer session, again they are waiting for the next reshuffle. Afterwards, there will be the wait for the final report of the Winograd Committee, and then the politicians will be waiting to see whether Barak keeps his promise and leaves the government.
Olmert's biggest problem is the finance portfolio. Not the portfolio but the candidates: On the one hand, Roni Bar-On, the energetic and loyal interior minister, the defense attorney who will always come to the defense of the prime minister. In the previous round, Bar-On aspired to be the justice minister. When Olmert chose Daniel Friedmann, Bar-On kept a stiff upper lip and remained loyal. Now he is giving Olmert another chance. A last chance. If Olmert skips over him again, Bar-On will neither forgive nor forget. Opposite him is Haim Ramon, the prime minister's close friend. It is usually said that in politics there are no friendships, but the relationship between these two people, Olmert and Ramon, is genuinely friendly.
Olmert's dilemma concerning Ramon is somewhat reminiscent of Arik Sharon's dilemma concerning Tzachi Hanegbi. When Sharon left the Likud, Hanegbi stayed behind. After a while he changed his mind and asked to join. Sharon's advisers warned him: Hanegbi is considered a corrupt politician, bringing him in will cause damage to your image. Sharon banged on the table: "Friendship," he said, "comes first!" Tzachi was brought in. Sharon was not damaged at all. His spinmeisters sold the move to rescue Tzachi from the Likud as a fatherly act of heroism on the part of the elderly prime minister, as a humanitarian step bordering on self-sacrifice.
Olmert's associates also told him this week: "Why ask for trouble? Finally things are going well, you appointed Ehud Barak as defense minister, a very suitable choice. The appointment of Ramon will lead to petitions to the High Court of Justice, demonstrations by sexually abused women, everything you gained with Barak you'll lose with Ramon."
It is hard for Olmert to argue with these claims. That is why he is putting off the decision until next week. He is debating with himself: Should he behave like Sharon and man the barricades for Ramon, in the hope that the public will be able to appreciate his friendship toward someone who was punished politically and was battered beyond all proportion - or play it safe and choose Bar-On? Bar-On in exchange for Ramon, or Ramon in exchange for Bar-On. That's the question.
They don't believe a word
The members of the Likud Knesset faction sat with Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday afternoon and regarded him with suspicion. That morning the daily Yedioth Ahronoth had published a headline to the effect that Olmert was considering offering Netanyahu the finance portfolio. Netanyahu's bureau, which knows how to respond quickly, maintained a long and reverberating silence until about two hours before the convening of the faction. That was enough for Likud members to consolidate their position regarding their leader and his intentions.
"The article in the newspaper is groundless," said Netanyahu at the start of the meeting. "A year ago they wrote that I was considering retiring from politics. Forget it, let's discuss the Iranian issue, that's the most important thing. They aren't handling it well." These words raised the level of suspicion even further. If "they aren't handling it well," it can be understood that we should join the government soon, right? The signal for an attack had been given.
"Your denial in this morning's paper was wishy-washy," said Limor Livnat. "When I read the news I though it was a spin of Olmert's," said Yuli Edelstein, "but as the hours passed and you didn't react, I began to think otherwise. Had they written that during your term as finance minister you received a bribe of $5 million, you would have run to every studio and demanded a retraction. In my opinion, joining Olmert's government is worse that receiving a monetary bribe."
"I haven't been accused of that yet," murmured Netanyahu.
"You lent a hand to a campaign whose purpose is to save the prime minister," said Reuven Rivlin, in attack mode. "You don't deny that you conducted negotiations with him about entering the government, and some say that you spoke last night as well." (Netanyahu did not respond to these words, but several hours later, reporter Nadav Peri announced on Channel 10 that the night before, immediately after Netanyahu's return from the United States, he had met with Olmert secretly in the Prime Minister's Residence.)
"I do deny it," said Netanyahu in his own defense. "There were no negotiations."
"The moment you go to eat lunch with Dalia Itzik, that's an invitation to receive an offer," said Rivlin. "If the Likud joins, the alternative is gone. We have 30 seats in the polls, only because we're outside."
Silvan Shalom, who was enjoying every moment, twisted the knife: "What does [Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor] Lieberman think to himself when he reads this headline?: 'Why should I leave the cabinet if Netanyahu is going to be finance minister?'"
"If they were to put a polling booth in the corner of the room," said one of the MKs, "and ask us to vote who is more believable in this story, Olmert or Bibi, it would end up 11 to 1. Against Bibi." That doesn't mean that they're replacing him tomorrow. They don't believe a word he says, they're convinced that he tried to join the cabinet- not necessarily as finance minister, but as defense minister before Barak joined, and as foreign minister after Barak joined - but they understand that they have no other winning card for now. Bibi is still leading in the polls, he is still estimated to bring them a large number of seats in the case of an election, and they feel (with the exception of Silvan Shalom, of course) that he is still their best chance for returning to power, or at least of substantially increasing their strength.
The story behind the story is the interesting relationship between Olmert and Netanyahu; the mutual grudges and disgust that once characterized their relations have faded and dulled over time. There is no love story there, but in recent months, in private talks, one could hear a different tone from both of them. They meet quite often, more than is reported by the media, and they speak by phone quite a bit. Every time a security issue comes up and Olmert gets on the phone to report, Netanyahu is one of the five people he calls. Netanyahu speaks admiringly of the quality, the frequency and the thoroughness of the intelligence briefings he receives from Olmert. He has the impression that the prime minister reveals "almost" everything to him - no less than Sharon used to tell him or that he used to tell the heads of the opposition during his term, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. Were he convinced that Olmert is doing what has to be done on the Iranian issue, he would be ready to provide him with a parliamentary safety net, at least until that issue was taken care of.
About three months ago, apparently in light of the increase in the various threats in the region, Olmert instructed the heads of the intelligence organizations to share all sensitive material with Netanyahu. Netanyahu now knows more than most of the cabinet ministers. Olmert appreciates his discretion. In Olmert's bureau they speak admiringly of the Likud chair: "He is doing excellent work all over the world regarding the economic pressures on Iran, and he is still Israel's number-one public-relations person in the world. Besides," they admit, "today, in the era after and before Winograd, and with the new rules of the game that Olmert has adopted for himself, it is important to the prime minister to be statesmanlike. To do the right things. His relationship with the head of the opposition is part of the issue."
In the Likud, they think that Olmert is playing a sophisticated game with Netanyahu. That by means of this openness and partnership he is buying Netanyahu's feeble opposition. But they don't intend to allow Netanyahu to take care of his own work arrangements at their expense. "Olmert has to be aware," says Rivlin, "that if the Likud joins the coalition, in the Knesset he will receive only three votes out of the 12 members of the faction: the votes of the three ministers who will be sitting around the table with him."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now