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After almost a year of leading the polls, Likud chair MK Benjamin Netanyahu woke up at the end of the week to a new situation, in which he found himself disturbingly neck-in-neck with Ehud Barak in the aftermath of his victory in the Labor Party primary.

The proximity in polls between Netanyahu and Barak, who moved into his new office as defense minister yesterday and will run the campaign for the premiership from there, marks the beginning of the renewed duel between the two. Although the date for the next elections, as promised by Barak in his Sdot Yam declaration, has yet to be decided, and it is not clear how and when the partnership that has just begun will end, the campaign for the premiership has already begun. At a Labor faction meeting two days ago, several hours before being sworn in at the Knesset as defense minister, Barak declared that the Labor Party must begin preparations for the elections, which will be "against Netanyahu and the Likud," apparently some time in 2008.

Barak was right when he declared during his campaign that Netanyahu would have preferred facing Ami Ayalon in the battle for the premiership. Netanyahu, of course, does not admit that, and is dismissive about the "Barak threat," as well as reports that he is under pressure. On Sunday afternoon, when Netanyahu was traveling through the Golan Heights on a Likud faction tour of the area, while Olmert was traveling to New York and Barak was planning his victory celebration scheduled for the same evening, the Likud leader tried to appear calm. This was despite his depressing week, which began with Barak's victory and ended with Reuven Rivlin's defeat by "serial loser" Shimon Peres.

"If I'm so pressured and he isn't, why doesn't he set a date for the elections as he promised?" riposted Netanyahu when asked about his new-old rival Ehud Barak. "Nothing has happened. After all, they buried me a year ago, and up until a few days ago I was the unquestioned prime minister. So now there's a battle, and we have an advantage over Barak. We were right about everything and he was mistaken. This is the most natural confrontation. There's center-right and there's center-left and Kadima is a joke. It will be a battle between two blocs."

The more the conversation focuses on Barak, the more the memory of Netanyahu's defeat in the 1999 elections comes up. As in a promo to the emotionally fraught and passionate battle between two former prime ministers, Netanyahu produces this monologue: "I'm willing to place my record opposite his record. He keeps saying that he defeated me, he only forgets to mention that after a year and a half he was no longer prime minister. Barak could be an excellent defense minister in a unity government headed by me with the proper policy." Netanyahu tops this off with a story about his conversation with Barak, a day after Barak's victory in Labor: "I phoned him, congratulated him and told him that I expected him to keep his promise and to set a date for the elections. He agreed."

'I told you so' campaign

Netanyahu skips briskly from the van to an observation point at Mitzpe Ophir in the central Golan Heights. Tiberias, Rosh Pina and the Jordan Valley are spread out below, and the television cameras are rolling. Netanyahu speaks of "Hamastan in Gaza" and the "Iranian threat," and doesn't forget to mention the unilateral withdrawals, with an emphasis on the withdrawal from Lebanon, which was executed by Barak and will be brought up with increasing frequency as the battle heats up.

"Do you remember how they snickered at me?" says Netanyahu on his way to the next site in the Golan, "when I warned about the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, and later from Gaza. There was someone who was telling you that all the time. All the heroes of the unilateral withdrawal, including Ehud Barak who up to a year ago supported it. I said that any territory that you give, you're giving a base to Iran. There's a policy of spin here. Diplomatic folly. I told you that they would fire Katyushas from there."

It is doubtful that Netanyahu will be able to get away with an "I told you so" campaign. It's a strong suit, which helps him in the polls and in public opinion. But now, after Barak has completed his conquest of the Labor Party and the Defense Ministry, and will dart into our lives on a daily basis in critical security and diplomatic contexts, Netanyahu will have to expand the reservoir of rejoinders.

Barak is also the one who will decide on the expiration date of the Olmert government. He will do that at a time convenient to him, with the first, but not imperative, exit point being the final Winograd report, due out toward the end of 2007. The Olmert government, whose formation will be completed next week, will enter one of the most stable periods in its history, and although this is stability on borrowed time, for Netanyahu it could present a problem of being worn down in the opposition.

Olmert brought Barak into his government knowing that he is likely to do what the Kadima rebels failed to do - bring down Olmert. In spite of this incongruity, Barak is also the lifesaver in Olmert's public and political rehabilitation efforts. Olmert needs to have Barak succeed in the Defense Ministry. It's a package deal. The risk is clear, as is the short-term reward.

Olmert knows that Barak has no patience. Barak wants to succeed him in the Prime Minister's Office, but just like him, Barak has to rehabilitate his public standing before leaving the government. Until then, the pair who will lead the country in the coming months is expected to work in harmony.

While it is clear to Barak and Netanyahu that the next elections will be a duel between them, MK Silvan Shalom is convinced that the matter has yet to be decided. Barak will be there. It's not certain that Netanyahu will, however.

Petty wheeler-dealer

Shalom is presently getting ready for his race against Netanyahu in the Likud leadership primaries, whose date is unknown, and does not understand why Netanyahu is so confident he'll be there opposite Barak. Meanwhile, Shalom is setting up his primaries headquarters. He has appointed Arik Barami, former secretary general of the Likud, as the head of his staff.

Shalom is fired up by a mission to prove that Netanyahu is the tragedy of the Likud, the obstacle standing in the way of dismantling the government and seizing victory in the elections. Netanyahu's associates are already finding it difficult to conceal their disgust with Shalom, a feeling that is increasing by the day. "A fifth column," "a petty wheeler-dealer," are their more refined appellations for Shalom.

But Shalom is consumed by an almost martyr-like need to prove that he is right. "For his part, the Likud can burn," says one of the members of the Likud faction describing Shalom's mood. "The main thing is that Bibi [Netanyahu] won't be prime minister."

Shalom doesn't understand how everyone does not see what he sees. How is it not clear to everyone that Bibi doesn't really want elections and is doing everything possible to prevent them? "He is simply not doing anything," said Shalom of Netanyahu this week, in the wake of Olmert's latest political successes with Barak and Peres. "After Winograd he had an opportunity to lead the protest. The public ground was ripe and only Bibi was sleeping. Meanwhile, Kadima has become stronger, and Bibi is traveling abroad again and will probably say that it's because of the [Iranian] nuclear situation."

On that note, Netanyahu's aides say his trip to the United States yesterday was meant to promote the Western economic boycott of Iran, a move that Netanyahu is successfully leading. While Shalom is "engaged in petty wheeling and dealing and subversion," they're saying there, "Netanyahu is engaged in statesmanship."

When Shalom looks to the sides and sees Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu's continued cooperation with Olmert, he is convinced that Netanyahu is the reason for that. "A new situation has been created. Shas and [Avigdor] Lieberman are not automatically joining a right-wing government because it is led by Bibi. He is preventing a political upheaval, preventing new elections and preventing an opportunity to win the elections. The fact that no action is being taken to bring down the government is only strengthening Kadima."

"It's hard to understand Silvan," say senior associates of Netanyahu. "Every time the Likud is taking off, he tries to subvert it." But Shalom says he doesn't understand what's wrong with his desire to run against Netanyahu. "He's trying to make my race illegitimate. That's a regular rule with him. He's forgotten that he ran twice against Sharon, who was an incumbent prime minister and at the height of his popularity. I have no personal quarrel with him. But I can't keep quiet when I see that he isn't doing anything to bring down the government."

Shalom is continuing to challenge Netanyahu, who is trying to remain indifferent to the challenge from inside that, as is already clear, will serve Barak in the election campaign. Nor is the Likud apparatus calm. Shalom was up in arms recently when Netanyahu appointed Alon Rothschild to head the Likud computer department, instead of the veteran Alex Glassman. Shalom claimed that this was an attempt by Netanyahu to usurp control of the apparatus by bringing in one of his own people, who was in charge of his feedback network in the internal elections. Now, claims Shalom, Netanyahu's man can do whatever he wants with the Likud electoral list, especially before the primaries.

Shalom petitioned the chair of the Likud central elections committee, retired judge Zvi Cohen, and demanded regular supervision of the computer department's activity. As a result, the judge ordered a special monitoring process of the electoral list, and Shalom chalked up a small victory. "That was a practical appointment," say Netanyahu associates. "The computer unit was in need of renewal and updating. All the rest is only another one of Shalom's conspiracy theories."