Four MKs - Likud rebels all - walked almost furtively into the foreign minister's office in the Knesset. Gilad Erdan, Yuli Edelstein, Michael Ratzon and Ehud Yatom were well aware why they'd been invited to meet with Minister Silvan Shalom last Monday, the day after he announced he was running for the Likud chairmanship. In actual fact, each man had received a solo invitation, but arranged between themselves to come as a group.

I've announced my candidacy, and am asking for your support, Shalom told the four Knesset members. They looked at one another. Nearly four months ago, upon the resignation from the cabinet of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just prior to implementation of the disengagement plan, they threw their weight behind him, where they have been ever since. Ehud Yatom was the first to gather his courage and speak, while the other three were busy examining their shoes and scanning their neckties for unseen crumbs.

We're already committed to Bibi, said Yatom. We can't alter our position, but we would be happy to try to engineer things so that the two of you could work together.

Yatom had barely finished expressing this thought when Shalom took a glance at his watch: Okay, thanks for coming in, he said impatiently, and started looking at the opaque glass door.

The MKs stood up. At this point, Yatom realized his colleagues had duped him. "Why am I the only brave one here?" he asked, indignant. "Why am I the only one who opened his mouth?"

Shalom is launching his campaign tonight at the Recital wedding hall in Tel Aviv. It's a pretty safe bet the hall will be overflowing with central committee members and party activists. Shalom's shindigs always register high ratings with the central committee. His problem is that for the first time in his life, he is compelled to step out of the hothouse, out to the members, where, at least according to reports of the MKs, a new trend is discernible - one in which the defense minister is showing an advantage. Shaul Mofaz is considered the only candidate who can hold his own against Sharon on the security court, and of course, like Shalom, join a potential Sharon-led coalition after the elections.

The outcome of the Likud primaries, to be held 20 days from now, will be decided by organization. In this realm, Shalom and Netanyahu enjoy the lead over Mofaz. Both of them already have infrastructures from their previous runs at the leadership. As was proven in the Labor primaries, likability is not enough - you also need buses and taxis. Mofaz's advantage lies in his image as a liquidator of Arabs in the intifada, a former chief of staff. In the Likud they like machismo.

"Wonderful Country" is doing Mofaz a huge service among Likud members. The satire program broadcast on Friday evenings essentially picked the head of the Likud by way of its portrayals of the three leading candidates: Netanyahu is depicted as a serial perspirer, manipulator, chronic liar and phony. Shalom is usually represented on the show by his wife, Judy. Last Friday night, he appeared for the first time, bumbling and stumbling at Judy's side. Only Mofaz is presented as an insensitive neighborhood bully, armed with M-16 and helmet, the tough guy who spits out a bullet, kills a photographer, mumbles something about "Our long reach will find whoever did this, blah blah" and moves on. Anyone who thinks these sorts of things have no effect would be wise to remember the "Hartzufim" (a political-puppet satire) and what they did to the careers of Haim Ramon and Dan Meridor.

Ideal partner

"How much is he costing us, and can we live with him." This sentence should be read twice in order to understand all its nuances. It was not uttered by a horse trader or a sports agent, but by a close associate of Ariel Sharon, who was asked to define the criteria for bringing new people to Kadima. That's how it works these days.

Dan Meridor doesn't cost a lot, but it would be extremely difficult for a few people in Sharon's entourage to live with him. So there is a question mark hanging over him. As for Prof. Avishai Braverman - maybe they could have lived with him (although there is already some grumbling about him in the Labor Party), but the price was sky-high. Which is why he is now in Amir Peretz's court.

And then there is Shimon Peres. The price is right, and he's easy to live with. Say what you want about him, he is the ideal partner for Sharon. They've known each other for half a century, are in the same age bracket, have the same head of hair and are as loyal as can be. Peres' colleagues in Labor testify that Sharon had no easier partner than Peres over the past year. When the Labor cabinet ministers met to discuss the evacuation of unlawful settlement outposts or the continued building in the settlements, Peres would invariably bristle with impatience. "Leave him alone," he'd say. "He is going to make peace."

If the deal now being discussed is sealed, and Peres does not appear on Sharon's list, where he would be liable to make a few people a little queasy, and he makes do with active support from without and with assurances of being the minister for peace affairs in the next Sharon government - then we have a deal.

Assuming Sharon does win over 30 seats and puts together the next government, together with Labor and Likud (this would be his preferred coalition, says an adviser, even if Netanyahu were the leader of Likud) or with Labor, Shinui and Meretz, he would be able to appoint eight ministers from his own party, at most. Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Meir Sheetrit, Avi Dichter, Peres, Ramon and Yaakov Edri, who is seen in Sharon's circles as the antidote to the "Amir Peretz effect" - are the seemingly shoo-in ministers. But vying over the one last spot would be Abraham Hirchson and Gideon Ezra, and Roni Bar-On and Ze'ev Boim, and Ruhama Avraham, and Majali Wahaba, and maybe another name or two from the Labor Party, such as Shalom Simhon, or from Shinui, like Prof. Uriel Reichman, and this is by no means a final list.

Nor has Eli Aflalo had his final say. And there's also talk about an Arab minister, and another woman. When you take a careful look at the list, Peres' status in the next cabinet is suddenly no longer all that certain. Maybe he'll have to make do with a post of special ambassador, and observer status at cabinet meetings.

The unfolding of events around Peres is indicative of just how fluid things are right now. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, the media reported on the major reservations harbored by aides to the prime minister regarding the addition of Peres to the ticket. Sharon's people were under pressure - the gentle equilibrium had been upset. As long as Braverman was outside the picture, they could live with Peres remaining in Labor. But Peres and Braverman together would be too much. Overnight, the music toward Peres changed. Sharon's aides, Uri Shani, and Ramon were dispatched to Peres with a concrete offer from Sharon.