Preparing for the worst
Everything seems to be up for grabs with the imminent convergence of the Winograd Committee interim report and the Labor Party leadership elections. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is jockeying for position by courting the Haredim and the left, while the Labor candidates calculate positions and hedge their bets.
A little more. Another week, ten days at most, and it's over. The nerve-wracking wait will be behind us. The report will be submitted. The facts will be accessible to everyone and the conclusions will resonate. Heads will fly. Two or three days before, as though to sweeten the pill, the country will be filled with celebrations and ceremonies. And, traditionally, the two people whose fates are about to be sealed will be at the center of the events: the prime minister and the defense minister.
Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz will do their duty. The former in the state ceremonies, the latter in the traditional reception at the Defense Ministry. But their minds will be far away. The smile will be artificial, the gaze hollow, the throat dry, the stomach in a knot.
While Peretz has already effectively given up, having announced that he will seek to leave the Defense Ministry after the Labor Party internal elections, Olmert intends to hunker down in his bureau. Unless, that is, the report of the Winograd Committee - which is investigating the Second Lebanon War and is expected to submit an interim report at the end of this month - ends up being so harsh that the country burns and his party rises up against him. In any other scenario, he will fight. "We will not throw up our hands and say: We accept everything in the report," one of Olmert's people said this week. "We will have plenty to say. Every move has an explanation, every decision has its logic. This is not some stupid prime minister. Nothing was done out of malice. He [Olmert] does not intend to launch a campaign against the committee, but he will not subordinate his judgment to the committee's judgment."
In recent weeks some people have heard Olmert speak less vigorously on this subject. A few have reported encountering a reflective, contemplative, skeptical Olmert. He told one of them something like, "Maybe I won't be here [after the report]." To another, he asked, referring to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, "Do you really want her to replace me? Do you really think she is qualified for this position?"
Olmert's confidants, when asked, denied that this is his state of mind. The prime minister, they said, is not worried about Livni. He does not believe for a second that she will lead a putsch against him. He knows her and knows that she lacks the guts. It is not only guts she is lacking, it is also a coalition, because Shas would not remain in the government if she were heading it and Avigdor Lieberman would likely leave as well. (Yossi Elitov of the ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpaha reported that Livni has recently begun to put out gentle feelers toward Shas cabinet ministers to determine whether they have a problem with her because she is a woman. They replied that what really bothered them are her stands on issues of religion and state, which place her "in the liberal wing of [former Shinui MK Yosef] Tommy Lapid.")
If Olmert goes, whether quietly or kicking and screaming, the immortal Shimon Peres has a better chance to succeed him, for a limited period, until Kadima chooses a new leader. "Maybe that's why Peres is not rushing to announce his candidacy for the presidency," an Olmert supporter ventured this week. "He wants to remain on the prime ministerial playing field. If I were Olmert, I would demand that Peres declare: I am a presidential candidate!"
Some have been urging Olmert to make a bold political move. "I will do nothing before the final report [of the Winograd Committee], in the summer," he told them, they say, "because anything I do will look like spin, like an attempt to divert public opinion. But after the final report, I will surprise them all."
Olmert is not waiting for the summer, however. His office has been firing off diplomatic initiatives like fireworks above Rabin Square on Independence Day.
For some time now Olmert's aides have been wrestling with the question of how he should behave after the interim report is released - what he should say, and how. Should he hold a marathon press conference and reply to any and all questions? Should he deliver a speech to the nation and ask for a second chance? Should he remain silent, "business as usual," and let the flames die out by themselves? No decision has been made, for the simple reason that no one in Olmert's bureau knows what the report will say. The working assumption, as a senior figure in the Prime Minister's Bureau put it, is that the report will be "gray plus, leaning toward black but not fatal."
At this stage, it is difficult to say whether Olmert's real campaign will be directed at public opinion, at his own party or at Labor. If he has to wage war on all three fronts, he is done for. He will not survive. But if his party backs him and if the Labor Party, which will choose a new leader in less than 40 days, remains in the government, he will be able to slog it out at least until the fall. Assuming, that is, that the final report does not deliver a death blow to the prime minister, or that the burden of all the criminal investigations against him does not paralyze him completely.
In the meantime, Olmert's preparations for the day after are proceeding along two avenues, vis-a-vis both the Knesset and the left. On the former, Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon and adviser Oved Yehezkel are holding intensive contacts with MKs Avraham Ravitz and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) on parliamentary backing for the government, should Labor bolt the coalition. Without Labor, Olmert will be left with a minority of 59 MKs. With Ravitz and Gafni in the coalition, Olmert would have the majority he wants. Olmert himself is giving the two ultra-Orthodox MKs quality time. Their talks focus on the Haredi education bill, and significant progress has been made. The underlying logic is simple: If Olmert has 61 MKs without Labor, whoever Labor elects as its chairman on May 28 will think twice about leaving the coalition.
Olmert is also attempting to secure support from leftist circles, or at least to tone down the stridency of their opposition. He has met recently with several leftist groups and figures, including the writer Amos Oz. They ask him about the peace process and his policy plans, and he elaborates his vision and his beliefs. At least one participant, an important and influential member of the left, came away with "a good feeling." He related afterward that Olmert is on the right path and is close to making important decisions regarding a final settlement with the Palestinians.
When one guest opined that the final settlement would lie within the triangle between Yossi Beilin's Geneva Initiative, the Clinton initiative and the Taba negotiations that Ehud Barak conducted in his last days as prime minister, Olmert reportedly "did not fall off his chair." It is impossible to overstate the importance of the secret meeting between Olmert and Amos Oz, which was reported in Haaretz on Wednesday. While writer David Grossman has spoken of the government's "hollow leadership," his colleague in the intellectual aristocracy chose to sit with the prime minister for three hours and talk to him about a range of political and diplomatic issues.
MK Haim Oron (Meretz), who is well-informed about the contacts between Olmert and left-wing figures, also believes that Olmert is on the right path. "In the past, when a prime minister of Israel wanted to get himself out of a tough spot, he whipped out an F-16 to drop a bomb on someone," Oron says. "So, if an Israeli prime minister is choosing a different direction to get out of a rough situation, that's fine, too. I am not dealing with his motives. The whole thing of investigating motives doesn't interest me, just as [Ariel] Sharon's motives for the disengagement didn't interest me, or the motives of [Menachem] Begin or of [Yitzhak] Rabin."
Oron is not detached from reality. He is aware of Olmert's problems in the judicial and public spheres, on the eve of the Winograd Committee report and state comptroller reports, too. "I know the right will undoubtedly accuse him of evasiveness, and so will part of the left, but I don't care about that accusation. One thing interests me: whether he can deliver the goods and serve the cause. I am interested in the institution of the prime minister, not personalities, and I see no alternative for moving things along besides the prime minister. I can hold a symposium about diplomatic options, or even a demonstration, but it will not advance anything. And Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] can meet 40 times with me and with Yossi Beilin, and that will not do what one successful meeting between him and Olmert will do."
The elusive candidate
The best indication of the situation of a candidate in any political race is the comportment of his rivals. If the presumed front-runner takes off the gloves and starts going after number two, it's a sure sign that the leader is in trouble. To judge by recent statements by MK Ami Ayalon against Ehud Barak, such as "Barak supported the [Palestinian refugees'] right of return," it appears that Ayalon has noticed an improvement in the former prime minister's standing. Otherwise, Ayalon, as the leading candidate, has no reason to make waves.
So far Barak has not responded. Some of his supporters believe the moment is approaching when he will have to break his silence and offer his learned opinion about current affairs. That will probably happen after the release of the interim Winograd report, which will deal in part with the IDF's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, under Barak.
The expected publication date, April 29, is exactly 30 days before Labor's internal elections and it will signal the start of the campaign. The status of Barak - the elusive candidate, Labor's phantom of the opera, here one moment and there the next, is not entirely clear. On the one hand, Ayalon is projecting a certain panic. But an important Labor activist who has joined Barak's staff says he was surprised to discover that things are dragging: In the Arab sector, he says, former party chairman and current National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is no match for minister Ghaleb Majadele, who is working for Amir Peretz; among the Druze, Barak has a majority, but not a comfortable one; in the urban sector, according to the activist, party functionaries support Barak, "but with them and their lies, you can never be sure." Most troubling is the prospect of Peretz joining up with Ayalon, in the event that the Winograd report deals him a mortal blow. In that event, says the Barak staffer, the game will be over. Not necessarily, according to another party activist, however: For every voter that Peretz brings in for Ayalon, two will flee from him to Barak.
Last Friday, following a businesslike, controversy-free, lightning-fast discussion, the committee that vets candidates for high office (the Turkel Committee, for short, after the retired Supreme Court justice who heads it) released its decision on David Cohen's appointment as the new police commissioner. He was approved unanimously. A few days later, the committee submitted the text of its decision to the cabinet, in accordance with the law. One sharp-eyed minister glanced at the document and burst out laughing.
Under the rubric of "The Committee's Procedures," there is a description of the testimonies of Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, outgoing police commissioner Moshe Karadi and the candidate himself. Cohen, the committee noted, outlined his police experience and expressed "his belief in the necessity of 'Sisyphean labor.'"
The quotation marks around "Sisyphean labor" are no accident. The committee members wanted to make it clear that these were Cohen's words. Fortunately for him, the candidate was tested only on his moral uprightness. Had he been tested on general knowledge, he probably would have failed. "Sisyphean labor" refers to work that is arduous but pointless. Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was considered a low, wicked type. He had an unusual hobby: leading travelers astray and murdering them. For this, Zeus imposed a terrible punishment: He was doomed to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill, which would roll back down every time he reached the summit, forcing Sisyphus to roll it back up, over and over, for all time.
Does the new commissioner really believe that work of this sort is "essential" for the Israel Police? Clearly, he does not. He undoubtedly meant hard work, unglamorous and thorough, but work that gets results. He got his imagery confused. That happens. What's interesting is why the Turkel Committee didn't spare him the embarrassment. In this whole short paragraph, 42 words all told summing up his testimony, that was the only quotation.