Ehud Olmert's inability to lead the government leadership to adopt his desired position - to support an additional, redundant ground operation in Gaza, contrary to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's opinions - reflects more than just personal weakness.
After all, he is suspected of criminal activity, and subject to a hearing, which he has managed to put off, thanks to Operation Cast Lead, until after the Knesset elections. He has resigned and his time has passed. But Olmert's dropping out of the political arena and relocation to the defendant's dock will not change the fundamental reality of the collective leadership that will manage Israel in the next crisis, which will be more acute than the Gaza operation.
There is no need to wait for the ballots to close and the absentee ballots to know the results of the Knesset elections. Even before the first ballot has been cast one can determine the practical results - a government led by a threesome. Like Olmert-Livni-Barak, only with Olmert out and Benjamin Netanyahu in.
It will not necessarily be a triangle of equal sides. But it will certainly consist of three leaders who will jab their elbows into each other's sides and fight each other all the way. It will be an Israeli version of the Roman triumvirate or the troika in Moscow, because in the coming years no Jerusalem politician will have the strength to stand alone at the top. Despite the talk about preventive blocs, it will be a Kadima-Likud-Labor government.
The next government will serve in the shadow of the great confrontation with Iran, which is approaching military nuclearization. It will have to decide whether to disobey Barack Obama if he firmly objects to deploying the Israel Defense Forces, and especially its American fighter planes, against Iran's nuclear facilities.
The crushing opening flight of the Gaza assault, following the attack on the North Korean reactor in Syria, indicates something - despite the differences - about Military Intelligence's information-gathering ability and the Air Force's operative ability. Such capabilities may allow leaders to consider attacking Iran, but they will find their hands tied, and will have to make an impossible decision. Even if such a decision is expected only at the end of the year, it's only one month before it will determine the shape of the government.
Netanyahu is the weakest of the three. He has even less experience in crisis management than Livni, who graduated from Lebanon and Gaza. He merely underwent, but did not pass, the 1996 Western Wall Tunnel events (and the abortive assassination attempt on Khaled Meshal a year later). His declared platform will gnaw at the political treaties, without which Israel will be at a disadvantage.
A sign of this was seen last week in the UN Security Council proposal and vote. During his years of mourning the premiership's loss, Netanyahu has regretted two decisions that prevented him from stabilizing the government - his refusal of Shimon Peres' pleas to serve under him (which would have prevented Labor from ousting Peres and electing Barak in his place) and appointing Yitzhak Mordechai defense minister. Here, in a nutshell, are two reasons for Netanyahu's aversion to handing the defense portfolio to Moshe Ya'alon and preferring to keep Barak, much like Obama has kept Robert Gates in the Pentagon.
If Netanyahu obtains a quarter of the Knesset seats and washes his hands of the factions to his right, Livni and Barak will still not be able to block his way to the government. But they will have the power to prevent him from becoming prime minister and restrict him to a place within the trio, as acting prime minister and finance minister.
For this they must agree on a rotation among them, like Peres' arrangement with Yitzhak Shamir in 1984-1988. The time-division will not be equal, like in the Peres-Shamir deal, but according to the number of MKs each faction has. On the basis of today's polls, for example, Livni, who will keep the foreign portfolio, may serve two-and-a-half years while the most senior deputy - vice premier and defense minister Barak - a year-and-a-half. Not a perfect arrangement but better than the alternatives.
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