The picture was worth more than a million words in describing the emotional state of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the last few months. It was Tuesday afternoon. The army's Gaza Division. Dozens of smiling, happy soldiers turning their gaze to the camera. And in the middle, the prime minister: gray, gloomy, tired, somewhat bloated, with glazed eyes. As though he had seen a ghost. Actually, any ghost that encountered him would have been scared off by his appearance. He seems so out of place in this scene that the picture looks like an amateurish photo montage.
Olmert went to Gaza to meet with the commanders and soldiers who had fought in Lebanon during last summer's war, and to assess their preparedness for the next conflict, against Hamas. After the briefings and the presentations, the prime minister spoke. At first glance, it seemed he had come to encourage, to strengthen, to declare that not everything is bleak. But upon contemplating the photograph, which was published in the papers on Wednesday, it becomes clear that he wasn't speaking to the people who were present; they don't look like they need to be strengthened. It was himself that Olmert wanted to comfort.
"I am impressed by the serious work that was done here, but also by the lack of boastfulness," Olmert said. "It's good that we've learned to be more modest. This doesn't reflect weakness. Don't cling to the grief of last summer. There were problems, there was an operational problem, but one thing there wasn't: a lack of determination, courage and battle spirit. Don't fall in love with the suffering that comes out of the media. A far worse thing happened to Hezbollah. When I hear that Hezbollah is renewing its supply of rockets, I say that we have to examine the enthusiasm of this organization, its motivation to fight. Don't get caught up in feelings of guilt or regret; there are no better soldiers than our children, and there are no better commanders than you."
Olmert didn't say, but certainly thinks, that there is also no better prime minister than himself.
"April is the cruelest month," wrote T.S. Eliot in his poem "The Waste Land." The poet was referring to lofty things, not our dry politics. But the prevailing feeling in the political system - in the wake of the bizarre announcement by the Winograd Committee concerning its interim report on the war in Lebanon, which will be released in the second half of April (let's hope the report itself will be more serious) - is that April is going to be quite cruel, and that heads will roll like bowling balls. And yet it's not entirely clear that this will happen.
It depends on what the committee decides about the wartime conduct of Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. They won't be getting commendations, but there is a great distance between that and resignation, ousting and a change of government. None of the coalition parties are interested in elections. They don't have the money or the energy for them, and Knesset seats aren't winking at them from the horizon either. The party leaders would rather wait for the committee's final report, in the summer. Olmert will not volunteer to leave office of his own volition, unless family pressure is brought to bear in the matter. He believes that an injustice was done to him, that his actions were reasonable, and that it was the military command that disappointed. And as for the other speculations - an imminent putsch in Kadima or a desertion to the Likud - it's not so simple.
Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu has been wooing the coalition chairman, Kadima MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, for a long time. This is a truly crucial pursuit. Netanyahu is convinced that Yitzhaki holds the key to a split in Kadima that would make Netanyahu prime minister in the current Knesset. But Yitzhaki has turned out to be hard to get: Not only has he refused to meet with Netanyahu, he has repeatedly said in public and private that he will never help Netanyahu become prime minister.
Yitzhaki, who served as the director general of the Prime Minister's Office under Ariel Sharon, is quite set in his view of Netanyahu's ability to withstand pressure - or, more accurately, to collapse under pressure. Yitzhaki says the Likud leader could be a pretty good foreign minister and a good finance minister - just not prime minister.
But Netanyahu is a persistent suitor, and some 10 days ago, he met with Yitzhaki at the Tel Aviv home of a mutual friend. According to Yitzhaki's associates, he told Netanyahu: I will never support you for prime minister, because I know that you can't take the pressure at critical moments.
But that didn't keep Netanyahu from saying at a press conference a few days later that there are Kadima MKs who want to "go home" to the Likud. Netanyahu is prepared to reserve spots on the Likud ticket for potentially homeless politicians from Kadima. But he has encountered opposition within the Likud faction. Thus it's worth listening to the comments made by MK Yisrael Katz, who knows the Likud Party Central Committee well. "The central committee will never approve reserved spots," predicted Katz. "In order to approve reserved spots, you need a majority of all central committee members: that is, out of 2,800 members, 1,401 have to vote in favor. It's impossible to get a majority like that."
Katz thinks Netanyahu is making a serious mistake by signaling his readiness to engage in political negotiations with Likud deserters. "If the Likud wants to be an alternative, it has to take a clear, clean and transparent stand: holding new elections, not getting dragged into other kinds of situations. How can we stand in Rabin Square in another two months, along with [Meretz-Yahad chairman] Yossi Beilin, and call for elections, and then conduct coalition negotiations with Knesset members?"
"All that's needed is a little patience," Katz added, by way of a recommendation for Netanyahu. "In the end, public opinion will lead to early elections, and then we - who will stick to this position, which says only elections and no ugly bargaining - will end up benefiting."
Even without Katz's suggestion/warning, a Netanyahu government is not in the cards in the current Knesset. In order to establish a government, the Likud leader needs 10 MKs to leave Kadima for his party, as well as support from the Pensioners, Shas, National Union, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beiteinu. Along with the Likud, that comes to a coalition of 67 MKs. But UTJ will not join such a coalition without benefits - a matter of a measly NIS 2 billion. The National Union will demand coalition guidelines that will not give Netanyahu even a millimeter of maneuvering room in the political arena. We would see him creating a coalition of the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox that would leave him in agony within a few months. It would be a coalition without any political message, which would be extorted from morning to night by extremist and sectarian parties.
Netanyahu is aware of the risk, but the aroma of power is inundating his senses like the smell of lilacs in spring, and every poll that gives him 30 seats makes him soar to the heights of euphoria. Patience?! What patience? The man who conceded the premiership in 2001 because the Likud had only 19 seats is now fantasizing about becoming prime minister when the party has 12 seats.
A no-less-imaginative scenario is one in which Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni becomes the country's leader, or part of a group of Kadima rebels who demand that Olmert resign if the interim Winograd report criticizes him fiercely enough.
First of all, Livni is not made for this kind of intrigue. To say the least, she is not very brave. Second of all, were she to take part in such a move, she would have to resign from the government, thereby losing her ministerial post and her title as deputy prime minister, which gives her a certain advantage - albeit a symbolic one - in the race to succeed Olmert. It's better for Livni to let Olmert fall alone, even if it takes time. He will have a hard time extricating himself from this swamp; the more he kicks his feet, the deeper he will sink.
In her hesitant way, Livni is preparing herself to fill Olmert's shoes. Kadima MKs have noticed that she has been nicer than usual to them recently - more attentive, more accessible. She is also augmenting the professional staff in the Foreign Ministry; she recently appointed a diplomatic adviser, a political adviser and someone responsible for public relations - and there could be more to come. Livni is taking an interest in the faltering census of Kadima members, but is anxious about launching a massive public campaign to recruit new members, so that no one will say she's getting involved in politics.
This week, posters in support of Livni's candidacy for prime minister suddenly popped up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If it's the Livni camp that's actually behind the campaign, she won't get very far. The posters bear a picture of Livni in which she looks like she's going to break into tears at any moment. In addition, her last name is apparently spelled incorrectly.
As with Netanyahu, the polls are going to Livni's head. Unlike Netanyahu, she lacks experience. A year as foreign minister, a year as justice minister, three years as a junior minister. Has she suddenly received the requisite training for serving in the toughest job in the world? Netanyahu likes to quote the saying that many people are capable of getting to power, but few know how to keep it and fewer still know how to use it. Livni seems like she has a better chance of replacing Olmert - primarily because of her popularity, which offers the frightened members of her faction the possibility of a political future - but it's doubtful that she will manage to preserve the coalition, despite the existing coalition agreements. At first glance, it seems that all she has to do is announce that there will be no changes, but the question is whether Shas will agree to take part in a government led by a woman, and whether Livni is too much of a leftist for Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.
This brings us to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres as the compromise candidate, for an agreed-upon amount of time. This solution is also quite problematic, for many reasons. The inevitable conclusion is that elections - whether at the beginning of 2008 or slightly before - will be necessary.
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