Almost too late, Ehud Barak realized that Tzipi Livni was an immediate threat to himself and the inert party he drags along behind him. The penny dropped when the latest polls told him that he and Labor would crash to 14 miserable Knesset seats if Livni headed Kadima.

He decided to go on the offensive and tell the public what he thought of Livni and her qualifications for prime minister.

Barak told close associates yesterday that "apart from a few meaningless photo-ops with Condoleezza Rice she hasn't done a thing. In the only thing she intervened in - Resolution 1701 (ending the Second Lebanon War) - she failed, not understanding anything."

Barak's associates said Livni was not very different from Olmert, who recklessly started the Second Lebanon War. She demonstrated as much by proposing a military reaction last month to a minor cease-fire violation in the south, they said.

"How come a woman who was frozen, hardly functioned in the war, voted for all the wrong decisions and was involved in a wretched decision, doesn't think twice before recommending a military operation that would cause quite a few mothers to lose their sons?" Barak told his people.

While Barak's statements are clearly political in timing, motivation and goal, Barak, in his way, is doing an important service by raising a critical question for public discourse. Is Livni, with everything we know and don't yet know about her, really capable of doing the job that he, Barak, was ousted from?

If Barak has contributed to this debate, he may be forgiven for his chauvinistic tone. He called Livni "Tzipora." Olmert refers to her as "that woman." At least on this issue both see eye-to-eye.

Barak's attack on Livni about a month before the Kadima primary could help her conquer her party's leadership. Kadima's members see Barak as an interested party who wants Shaul Mofaz as Kadima's leader who brings the party fewer votes than Livni.

Barak surely understands that. But he figures that if Livni is elected Kadima's leader on September 17 she won't really try to set up an alternative cabinet, but would act immediately to advance the elections, perhaps to the end of January.

As far as Barak is concerned, we're at the opening of an election campaign and every minute counts. His uncomplimentary comments on Livni show how similar his interests are to those of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud. Livni is Barak's and Bibi's common enemy. Livni in Kadima's leadership threatens both Netanyahu's chances of forming a government and Labor's chances of retaining its relevance in Israeli politics.

In the election campaign Netanyahu will be able to tell voters: Must I tell you what I think of Tzipi? Didn't you hear what the defense minister, who has been sitting beside her in defense and state affairs debates for a year, said about her?

There is no doubt that Barak is in distress. He does not understand why he deserves it. Unlike Livni, he was not involved in the Second Lebanon War. For the past 14 months he has been in charge of rehabilitating the army and preparing it for the next confrontation. He was the one who pulled the rug under Olmert's feet and led to his dismissal - not Livni who muttered something about integrity.

He is actively foiling the justice minister's undermining of the Supreme Court, and he brokered the Gaza cease-fire, yet the public doesn't give him one iota of credit.

Livni, on the other hand, is getting stronger, establishing her status as the leader of the center-right, at his and Labor's expense.