Three days after the 2006 election, Amir Peretz and his advisors convened in Benny Gaon's house in Herzliya Pituah. Peretz, whose Labor Party had 19 Knesset members, compared to 29 for Kadima and 12 for Likud, was contemplating a tempting offer, the result of secret negotiations conducted with associates of Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu: a government led by Peretz, with Netanyahu as defense minister. Uzi Baram warned Peretz not to give in to temptation, and Peretz rejected the offer (in favor of another problematic offer: to serve as defense minister under Ehud Olmert, with all his stains and flaws).
It is worth remembering this precedent - which shows that in Netanyahu's eyes size is not everything - in the event that in today's election Likud wins one more seat than Kadima and Netanyahu hastens to claim victory over Tzipi Livni and with it first crack at forming a government.
Israeli elections take place in two stages. The voters' role ends when the polls close, at which point the horse-trading among our elected representatives begins. The voters see the candidates as playing cards: King Bibi, Queen Tzipi, Prince Ehud Barak and the joker, Avigdor Lieberman. But in reality, this is reverse poker: The cards play the players.
The electorate's indecision among the parties that comprise the broad centrist spectrum stems primarily from discomfort with the parties behind the leaders: Voters are willing to consider marrying the billionaire's daughter but are not thrilled with the idea of having to live with their mother-in-law afterward. The fact that party leaders bring with them into the Knesset the candidates that are next on the list has made the primaries more interesting and creative than the general elections. During the final the party leaders play defense: For them, a tie is sufficient.
The contest among Livni, Netanyahu and Barak was fixed, because all three have a supreme interest in surviving as partners in the government. Those who do not want one of them as prime minister will get him or her as deputy prime minister, and those who do not want him or her as deputy prime minister will get him or her as defense minister. The menu is fixed: The only question is who will be served as appetizer, who as the entree and who as dessert. Those who order soup may yet eat it as the last course.
Lieberman also needs to worry about such an outcome, and that is even before the threat of having to move from Yisrael Beiteinu to Ma'asiyahu Prison has materialized. Even if his anonymous squad becomes a platoon, if the three decide to divide the spoils among themselves, his bargaining power will be almost nil.
Nevertheless, it still makes a difference which of this three-member government by committee becomes the first among near-equals. The face of the prime minister is the face of the nation. So it would be preferable for this face to be clean, honest, moderate, devoid of greed and evasions. Barak and Netanyahu, like Olmert, both belong to the greenback party - those who became very rich during their time as public servants, or at least during the brief intervals between their stints of public service. Each has acquired wealth that precludes him from identifying with ordinary Israelis. Each resembles the other more than either resembles his voters. The only vision they can offer is more of the same.
Livni, who represents the desires and constraints of the 21st-century Israeli better than either of them, was regrettably born 20 years too late. Had she been older than they, both Barak and Netanyahu, like Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon under Golda Meir, would have accepted her leadership.
A governing triumvirate is not that complicated to achieve. The true challenges will arise after such a government is established: preventing paralysis due to mutual suspicion and score-keeping and finalizing a plan of action to extricate Israel from its distress. The precedents are not encouraging. But then again, there is always a first time.
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