In one of their heart-to-hearts, during the most boring political foreplay in the history of coalition talks, Ehud Barak said to Tzipi Livni: "Look, I'd be very uncomfortable declaring my confidence in the Knesset as a minister in your government alongside Daniel Friedmann." Livni was silent, and Barak added: "And alongside Haim Ramon, too." Livni still said nothing. "I'm not demanding that you fire Friedmann," Barak said, "but find a way to work it out."

Barak is convinced that if [Justice Minister] Friedmann goes, [Vice Premier] Ramon will follow. He proposed to have the coalition agreement state that "The justice minister will not be allowed to promote or bring to a vote any bill, regulation or initiative without the consent of the Labor Party."

"Absolutely not!" Livni responded. "Every minister acts within his own area, and no other party is going to have a veto about it."

Members of Barak's close circle say that, "Friedmann has a destructive, offensive agenda that clashes with the government's principle guidelines. It won't work."

"And [Labor MK] Shelly Yachimovich doesn't have her own agenda? What about [MK] Avishay Braverman? And [former party chair] Amir Peretz?" [All three are considered to have socially liberal economic policies.] "Will Shelly and Amir vote in favor of the budget?" Livni's people ask.

"But they aren't ministers," Barak's people reply.

"And since when do you get to tell us who will be a minister and who will not?" Livni's close circle asks. "Ehud Barak got the prime minister replaced. That was his move, and now he also wants to meddle with the Kadima ministers?"

As of Yom Kippur eve, Livni was unwilling to give Barak the justice minister's head on a platter. "Forget about Friedmann the man," she says to him. "Let's talk about the actual issues. I am the prime minister, I decide what is brought to a vote and what is not." And she also tells Barak, "Almost every time Labor voted in the government against Friedmann, so did I."

Regardless of who the next justice minister will be, Livni insists, it will be a different story once I am there. I was, she says, deeply embarrassed by the government's discussion of the Ramon wiretaps [a reference to demands within Kadima, including by Justice Minister Friedmann, of an official inquiry into the use of wiretaps in the 2006 indictment of Haim Ramon for sexual harassment], just as Labor was. Had I been prime minister at the time, it would not have come up. My agenda is very much like Labor's: I'm not a blind follower of the Supreme Court, but I will staunchly defend its standing.

Livni has promised Barak that the world as we know it, the Olmert-Friedmann-Ramon world, is about to become obsolete, because the person at the top is about to change.

"Well, that's what she thinks," says one close associate of Barak's in response. "She thinks Friedmann can be tamed. She does not know this particular patient. He is a Jesuit, determined, uninhibited. If we do not rein him in, he will tame her, not the other way around."

Livni proposed that Barak settle for the following phrasing: "Labor will be consulted on legislation." Barak is having none of it. In truth, however, the language Barak proposes also cannot guarantee that Friedmannism will not continue to run riot. Friedmann, with Ramon's active help, will find ways around the coalition agreements. He is already doing so today. If, for example, Labor vetoes a certain bill, Friedmann can always ask an opposition MK to propose it as a private bill; at the crucial moment, the Kadima faction will be absent from the Knesset plenum, and the bill will pass. As long as Friedmann is in the government, he will have the upper hand.

What will Barak and his ministers do after they are defeated in a vote? Dismantle the new government? Barak, after all, says he wants a government that will last two years. But when he is humiliated by the justice minister, when he and his party are turned into a circus, and he finds himself stuck within the government, then how will they look? Already today, political surveys show Labor, if elections were held now, gaining about 10 seats (compared to the 19 it has in the current Knesset) - less than Yisrael Beiteinu, less than Shas, almost the same as the National Union.

Within Labor some suspect that Barak has already abandoned his semi-ultimatum on the Friedmann issue, and that under cover of the financial crisis he is crawling his way into Livni's government. Shelly Yachimovich and Ophir Pines-Paz are already lying in wait for him. They expected Labor to claim the justice portfolio for itself, or else to demand that Friedmann be dismissed. If not that, they thought the party would at least present a clear ultimatum regarding the justice minister's future activities. Yisrael Maimon, head of Kadima's negotiating team, told Barak's people that he is certain a reasonable, logical mechanism can be devised, to the satisfaction of all sides. We'll see.

Friedmann is not the only obstacle on the way to a new government. There is the more general question of how the two parties will conduct their business together, in what Barak calls a "unity government without rotation." Barak, claim Livni's people, wants her to be "prime minister of the Barak government," so that nothing will move ahead without him.

What is this business of Barak's suddenly wanting to oversee Israeli talks with Syria? No way, Livni's people declare; since when does a defense minister run such an important channel of diplomacy? The prime minister will be in charge, they say, but unlike Olmert, she will keep Barak in the loop. He will know when the emissaries head out and when they return; he will be briefed; and the security dimension, which is integral to the negotiations, will be his exclusive responsibility.

'What does he want?'

"I don't understand Barak," Livni complained this past week behind closed doors. "What does he want? Why the suspiciousness? He knows that I am not Olmert, that I really intend to work with no surprises. The public wants finally to see a prime minister and a defense minister working together in harmony, in cooperation, debating all the issues seriously. I will not be Olmert. With me he will know everything. But he won't have a veto."

In an internal discussion held after Livni's representatives, Maimon and Yoram Raved, finished another fruitless round of talks with Barak's representatives, Ofer Eini and Effi Oshaya, Livni lost her patience. "Okay, I understand," she snapped angrily. "He doesn't want to, so forget it. I don't intend to drag this out. We'll draw our conclusions, and that's it."

The people around her calmed her down. "Give him some time," they said. "He's not an easy customer, but he does not want elections."

Livni's people wanted to suggest to the Labor representatives that in the case of a disagreement between the two parties, the issue in question will not be brought to a government discussion but rather postponed for two weeks (unless "national needs" are at stake). During those two weeks there will be an effort to reach an agreement. If none is reached, the matter will be brought to a discussion and a vote, whether in the government or in the cabinet.

Barak wants only Livni and himself to sit in a room and make the decisions on key issues - security, politics, diplomacy. People close to the defense minister, however, detect signs that Shaul Mofaz, too, would like to be part of this top forum; so, perhaps, would Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, Livni's highest-ranking ally. Barak does not want a threesome, much less a foursome.

He can relax, Livni told her people in a meeting just before the holiday; as soon as I declare someone the senior minister, he will be the senior minister. Period. It will be a partnership. I will make good on what I commit to, and what I have committed to will be clear. Tell them (in Labor) to stop worrying what goes on internally in Kadima. After all, there aren't significant differences in our views on matters, and we're facing an economic crisis and urgent security matters.

I don't want to diminish, denigrate or humiliate anyone, says Livni. I want to offer them a respectable way into the government, and I'm willing to set things down in writing. But there is no reason to drag things out this way. We could make the deal in an hour.

Livni's initial 28 days [to form a coalition] will end on Simhat Torah (October 21). She had to agree, without much enthusiasm, to Olmert's trip to Russia this past week. It wasn't exactly acceptable behavior, when it comes to the head of an interim government, who may no longer be prime minister in two weeks' time. If she were in a position to choose a simpler partner than Barak, she would do so happily. But you don't choose your coalition partners any more than you choose your family. Actually, you do choose them, but Livni, in this case, did not have a choice. Without Barak there is no government.

The negotiating session planned for this past Tuesday was postponed by Barak to Friday, after the Yom Kippur holiday. Within Livni's close circle, Barak's move was received with some incredulity: On the one hand, he declares that the international financial crisis requires an urgent response (that is, he is on the way into the government); on the other hand, he declares that there is a political crisis and postpones the meeting (suggesting the opposite); on the third hand, he has established a negotiating team led by his close associate, Histadrut chair Ofer Eini, a reasonable and moderate man (which is encouraging); on the fourth, Barak's people complained in the media that they have yet to receive anything concrete from Livni beyond "pleasant treatment."

'Tell Bibi I said so'

MK Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) met MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) just before the holiday. "Prepare for elections," he told Rivlin. "And you can tell Bibi I said so," he added, referring to Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu. From Shas too, Livni has had her share of troubles. She knows that until Barak has signed on the dotted line, Shas is going to play hard-to-get. Only after Barak is in, and Meretz is at the door, will it be possible for Livni to cut a deal with Shas.

Shas is talking about the child stipends, which would add some NIS 1 billion to the budget. Kadima is offering 300 million and a negative income tax, instead of actually handing families cash. Eli Yishai is unimpressed by the global financial crisis, the local economic slowdown and the imminent recession. If it were up to him, he would go straight to elections and form a government with Netanyahu and the right. Only it is not up to him, but rather will be decided by his party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

On paper, Livni has more than one government she can put together without Shas. There is a coalition consisting of Kadima-Labor-Meretz and the Pensioners Party, with outside support from the Arab parties. Or a similar government, that includes as well United Torah Judaism. These two possibilities would give her a narrow majority of 60 to 66 MKS. But even this is an optical illusion: There is a considerable group within Kadima, consisting mainly of Mofaz's people, who will not vote for a government that is dependent on support from Arab factions. Besides, Ehud Barak has already publicly declared that he will not be part of a shaky 60-MK government.

Barak is now willing to crown Livni; he has apparently overcome that particular mental barrier. But he needs a long-term political horizon. A year, 15 months, at the least. This week, during Sukkot, he is supposed to go on vacation for three days. Here in Israel, but at a location that his people have refused to disclose.

If the talks do reach a successful end, it will be during a nighttime meeting with Tzachi Hanegbi, Livni's chief negotiator, at Barak's home on the 31st floor of the Akirov Towers, with documents faxed back and forth to Livni's home, in nearby Ramat Hahayal. Until the sun comes up, and Israel witnesses the dawn of a new day.

Economic crisis?

Barack Obama and John McCain, the two U.S. presidential candidates, are talking about nothing but the economic crisis in their country. They debate it, declaim about it, propose solutions to it, meet with the president and with economists about it, and both worked to convince their party colleagues to support the government's bailout plan. They are reaching into the fire: Though neither of them is personally responsible for the crisis, in a few months one of them will be responsible for solving it. They are in the arena, on the playing field.

Tzipi Livni may establish her government long before either Obama or McCain moves into the White House, after being inaugurated at noon on January 20, 2009. She is, however, silent on the subject of the world economic crisis. She does not want to get into trouble, to misstep, to expose her limited understanding of economic matters. In this sense, she is like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Neither knew anything about economics. They left behind them - in 1983 and 1992, respectively - an economy in deep trouble.

This week Netanyahu suggested creating a security net for pension funds and for the public's bank savings. If necessary, he said, government intervention need not be a dirty phrase. It was not easy for him, but he said something to this effect. So did Barak, and in making the Histadrut's Ofer Eini the head of his negotiating team, he was signaling that to him, too, the economic crisis is the main thing. So where is Tzipi?