Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich does her shopping at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. She gets there by bike. Ever since Defense Minister Ehud Barak was elected Labor Party chairman, people there have greeted her with statements like: "What are you doing with that scum?" This week they were shouting: "Wallah, good for him! He's a champ! What a man!"

Barak, the object of so much hatred, is suddenly winning mass admiration. When he walks through bombarded Sderot and Ashkelon, he is no longer jeered and cursed at, which had been his lot during the past 18 months.

Barak can say: I told you so, the public opinion polls will change. There will certainly be those (among them a number of leading politicians) who think he planned the operation's timing precisely - 40 days before the election.

Nevertheless, two of the major players in the war drama are candidates and leaders of rival parties. In talking about the management of the operation with close associates this past week, Barak has been saying: "Gabi, Olmert and I" - referring to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In Barak's narrative Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the head of Kadima, who participates in all the decision-making forums, is a "high-school kid" trying to disguise herself as a security leader without really understanding military and security issues.

The story about the "French initiative" for a temporary cease-fire, which Barak mentioned at a meeting with military commentators, has already been crushed. He does not understand why people are saying he is acting outside his realm of responsibility: He received a phone call from French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and raised his idea in the forum of three. He himself was thinking twice about a ground operation. And if an international figure contacts you and wants to help, why not cooperate? After all, if Hamas opens fire during the 48 hours of lull, Israel will revert to attacking. If not, a window of opportunity will have been created for achieving a better truce.

Leave it to Livni

Kouchner, a personal friend of Barak's for many years, has unwittingly become part of a political conflict between the defense minister and the foreign minister. Indeed, in Livni's view, Barak wants to pull off a diplomatic move without her because he's a frustrated minister who feels hemmed in by his current position. Livni thinks Barak should focus on managing the military campaign, and that's it. He should leave all the rest, like managing the negotiations with fellow foreign ministers, to her.

This week a Kadima cabinet minister, a member of Livni's camp, complained about Olmert to a friend from the Likud. "Tzipi could have emerged big from this war," groused the minister, "but Olmert isn't letting her. He gets his picture taken with Barak, he tours the army base with him, they slap each other on the back and she remains in the wings."

The Haaretz-Dialogue poll that was published yesterday indicated, predictably, a considerable improvement in Barak's standing as defense minister and a significant gain for Labor - from 11 Knesset seats in the survey conducted only a week ago, to 16 seats today. As for suitability to be prime minister, however, Barak continues to trail far behind.

Shortly after the air force attacks on Gaza began, he announced that he was "suspending" himself from the day-to-day matters of the campaign. But the campaign has not disengaged itself from him. The day before the operation, the Labor Party put up huge billboards around Tel Aviv, from which a serious Barak gazes down, with the slogan: "Looking the truth in the eye." He shook off the swarm of MKs buzzing around him like a kind of human flak jacket, sprouted wings and flew the coop.

Tel Aviv is also plastered with Kadima billboards, featuring a huge Livni and the caption: "The courage to tell the truth." In some places, the two billboards are actually hanging side by side - and their messages seem identical. Only the naive Likud put up posters in support of the IDF and the inhabitants of the south this week.

A strange reality has developed: Kadima and Labor, which are currently in power, are ostensibly not conducting a campaign, but they are in the news and on billboards, whereas the opposition Likud, perhaps out of a sense of panic over "what will they say about us," is playing it patriotically dignified and righteous.

Return of rotation

Wednesday morning. At the bus stop in Ashdod where Irit Sheetrit was killed on Monday, a noisy crowd has gathered. Some 30 journalists and cameramen swoop down on Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu, who is standing nearby in a blue bomber jacket, similar to the one worn by Barak. "Move back," Netanyahu requests. "There is no need to push. If need be, I'll say it again."

More than anyone else, he can claim as his own expertise in that peculiar Israeli entity called hasbara - which in effect means propaganda, or persuading foreigners that Israel is right. Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog is interviewed just as often as Netanyahu on foreign channels, but no one knows about it. When Netanyahu launches an assault on the foreign correspondents, it takes on a nearly mythological dimension. He has answers to every question. When a hostile British reporter asks him about the disproportionate use of force - three killed here as opposed to 350 in Gaza - Netanyahu fires the answer at him: "In World War II, the number of German dead was several times larger than the number of British dead - does this mean Britain wasn't in the right?"

Netanyahu all but disappeared during the first days of the operation, but then Olmert asked him to help out, thus allowing him to take some of the public credit. In addition, Netanyahu is helping the prime minister dwarf Livni's stature a bit - although as foreign minister, she should hold the title of Israel's chief "explainer." But once his tour of Ashdod was over, Netanyahu proceeded to Ashkelon - with the foreign correspondents' bus in his wake. Livni, who arrived several hours after him, had to make do with the leftovers.

The Haaretz poll published yesterday showed that if elections were held today, the right and ultra-Orthodox bloc and the center-left bloc would be tied, 60-60. Only a week ago the right bloc had 65 Knesset seats and the left had 53. The war has resulted in a dramatic shift between blocs. If the same will hold true on February 10, election day, it could spell the return of rotation. But it's still too early to tell. At the start of the Second Lebanon War, the defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz, won the support of 75 percent of the public. Some two months later he was left with barely 10 percent. In the latest Haaretz poll, Barak is seen enjoying the support of 55 percent of respondents for his role as defense minister. If things go awry, his plunge will accelerate.

The Ashkenazi factor

At Wednesday's cabinet meeting, the matter of the French initiative for a cease-fire did not even come up for discussion. When one minister was asked about the difference between the conduct of the Second Lebanon War and the current fighting in Gaza, he mentioned the implementation of the Winograd Committee's conclusions. But the most salient difference in the cabinet discussions then and now, he noted, is the conduct of the chief of staff: "Ashkenazi comes to the meetings with a very small group of people. He does not allow them to remain in the room for a single second longer than what their role requires. They report and they leave immediately. In the summer of 2006, then chief of staff Dan Halutz would come to meetings with a huge retinue - major generals and brigadier generals, who would sit in the room throughout the meeting and then have coffee with the ministers."

Meretz takes its cue

Meanwhile, there has been some disgruntlement in Meretz, the party that jumps to attention every time the trio of important writers - particularly Amos Oz - have their say. People have started asking questions: Does the symbiosis between Oz and Meretz chairman Haim Oron remind one of that between Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai in Shas? Is it the role of writers to determine when to start a war and when to stop it? When is it the time to say, "Israel has the right to protect its citizens," as Oz wrote last Friday in the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, and when is it necessary to "Stop the shooting now," as Oz wrote in the same newspaper this Wednesday (David Grossman also published an article in this spirit this week in Haaretz).

This "symbiosis" between Oron and Oz prompted Oron to announce last Thursday, 48 hours ahead of the start of Operation Cast Lead, that Israel should act "uncompromisingly" against Hamas (a statement Oron later regretted and that his people have attributed to "an overly-zealous spokesman"). On Friday, as noted, Oz published an article in Yedioth. A few days later, both of them were in synch again - speaking out against a ground operation.

Not everyone in Meretz was keen about Oz's article stating that "the Labor Party has finished its historical role." In the opinion of one senior party member, this statement was not particularly expedient: It has made quite a few as-yet Labor voters who were trying to make their minds up between Labor and Meretz think again, and has prompted a wave of support for Labor. "The problem," says that Meretz member, "is that when it's Oz who says things, no one dares to come out against him."