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Ehud Olmert made his first diplomatic decision last Thursday, less than 24 hours after assuming Ariel Sharon's authorities. He met with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in the office of the minister of trade, industry and tourism. Prepare for elections in East Jerusalem, based on the same arrangement we used in 1996, he told Mofaz. Word of the decision was released to the public last Tuesday, after the acting prime minister had "consulted" and "considered," and after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by phone. She was surprised, Olmert's aides said. She had not thought he was ready for such a decision, so soon after assuming power.

Even earlier, during that long night last Wednesday, Olmert made another decision, one that was no less critical: self-discipline. He would not swoop down on the spoils. He would not repeat the mistake committed by Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, who went out to the photographers after the assassination attempt against the president in 1981 and announced he was in charge. Nor the behavior of Shimon Peres, who moved into Yitzhak Rabin's office the day after the assassination.

Olmert did not even want to stop at the Prime Minister's Office on Sunday, the day of the weekly cabinet session. He went to the next floor and holed himself up in the office of cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon. From there he called Marit Danon, Sharon's bureau chief, and asked her to come upstairs. When she arrived, he embraced her and said: I'm sorry I had to call you, but I just cannot be there. That's Arik's office, and will remain his until the situation clears up.

Later on, at the cabinet session, he made sure to sit in his regular seat, next to Sharon's empty chair. There was nothing coincidental about it; it was not a decision reached without prior consideration. Everything was planned and decided on beforehand. In so doing, he wished to radiate human caring, recognition of his own limitations, and humility. Olmert - the arrogant politician, he of the scathing smirk and the patronizing, know-it-all demeanor, sat there and gazed at the cameras with weary eyes after a sleepless night.

Nevertheless, he feels that despite the sense of loss and rupture that descended on Israelis, he succeeded in infusing them with a sense of confidence and calm. He sent the message that there is continuity. That someone is ready to take responsibility, make the decisions, take care of business, and that it would all be done as Sharon would have done it. That is the acid test of the acting prime minister. It is mainly a political test: every decision he makes, be it diplomatic, political or security-related, has to be so Sharon-like that no one can say about him that Sharon would not have done it this way.

This is true even when it comes to the little things. When the problem with Shimon "I never asked for any position" Peres cropped up, Olmert acted as Sharon would have: He sent Uri Shani to Peres, informed Peres that whatever decision Shani made would be the same as if he, Olmert, had made it. He then told the Kadima candidates he would honor any commitment made by Sharon.

Sharon had assigned the Foreign Ministry portfolio to Tzipi Livni, and Olmert made her his close confidante, and repeated Sharon's pledge to her in the matter of the Foreign Ministry portfolio. Olmert also intends to appoint her his deputy prime minister if elected. He continued to work with Sharon's advisers, with the "Ranch Forum," which became the Trade and Industry Ministry forum, where they have been meeting. He is also considering flying to Washington sometime in the next few weeks to meet with President George W. Bush, on condition that there be something to talk about, and on condition that the visit doesn't come across as forced and artificial. Also possible are visits to Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, and even to Russia. For the Russian vote. Sharon is the idol of the Russians. They don't know Olmert.

Natural successor

The Haaretz-Channel 10 News poll, which gave an Olmert-led Kadima 44 seats - a new high - and ascribed to him Sharon's qualities (reliability, suitability to the job and placement in the center of the political map) came as no surprise to him. He didn't need the polls to tell him that. After all, it was he who jumped into the cold water of the disengagement even before Sharon. It was he who put his political fate in the Likud at risk. It was he who made political sacrifices for Sharon, without making any personal gains. Is it any wonder that at the moment he was told to don the robes of the leader, he was immediately viewed by the public as the natural successor to Sharon, more than anyone else.

Unlike Sharon, who was moon, sun and stars all rolled into one, Olmert needs a team around him. Sharon's advisers report that the team would consist of Peres, Livni, Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit, Haim Ramon and Avi Dichter. In the campaign broadcasts, Olmert will hardly ever be seen alone. He will be surrounded by this team. The way will be "Sharon's way." It will be directed by Olmert, but he will be surrounded by a tight circle, one that will protect and strengthen him. What will happen to them after the elections? That's another story. Olmert is a vengeful sort. He won't forgive Peres the rites of initiation he was put through. Peres will sit in his office and complain that he isn't in the loop, said a high-ranking source in Kadima this week.

Olmert's loud orange ties, which made him stick out in a crowd, have disappeared. They have been replaced by solid royal blue and formal black ties. The tub-thumping interviews on the morning radio shows, in which he used to lash out at Sharon's rivals, and mainly Benjamin Netanyahu, are now an item for the archives. I had to do it, he told a friend this week, because I was Arik's Olmert. Somebody had to give back in kind to Bibi, and there was no one else. And who will be your Olmert, he was asked. Not me, he replied.

Don't be an Olmert, Sharon's advisers were telling him this week. Be an Arik. If you are insulted, suck it up. If you are attacked, flash a Mona Lisa smile and don't say a word. Enough with the arrogance. There were times when Arik was like you. Not very long ago. He would scream at everyone. He'd insult them, he'd lash out. As soon as he adopted a different type of behavior, through the influence of his sons and of Reuven Adler and Shani, the way was paved to the Prime Minister's Office.

The true opponent

Olmert heard, and internalized the message. He understands that right now he is enjoying the public's sympathy for Sharon; that people are telling pollsters Olmert because that is their only way to express solidarity with the ailing leader. How much of that will remain after the sentimental days in the hospital are over, with their heart-rending stories? No one knows. When the Sharon halo is no longer there to shield him, Olmert will have to face difficult tests: A wave of terrorist attacks after the Palestinian Authority election could tip the balance toward the Likud. Olmert isn't the only one who understands this; on the eve of his second hospitalization, Sharon said in a private conversation that Netanyahu is the true opponent, not Amir Peretz.

"All told," said one Kadima leader this week, "these have been good days for the party." Then he realized what he'd just said. But these really have been good days, just as the Labor Party had good days in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. All of the parties were paralyzed. Amir Peretz, naif that he is, really believed that you don't do politics at such a time. His limping election campaign, which even at normal times is imperceptible, didn't do anything either. And then there was Benjamin Netanyahu. He ran to Yair Lapid's oh-so-empathetic studio, and wrote a column that ran in The New York Times, in which he confessed his latent love and reverence for Sharon.

Between Likud and Labor, the Kadima people didn't have a moment's rest: Reporting from the hospital, appearances by Livni, Dichter, Roni Bar-On, Ronit Tirosh and other candidates were part of the non-stop campaign. The Kadima people shot - then cried. They were immersed in the most fundamental politics of all, as they waved their finger toward their bewildered rivals and shouted: They're playing politics! Politics! At a time like this!

The game ended

On Wednesday, the game ended. Everyone returned to normal. This was triggered by the idea hatched by Adler, Sharon's friend and adviser, to place Sharon in the number one spot on Kadima's list for the Knesset. As soon as the partisan use of the ailing Sharon became so blatant, the signal was given. An all-clear siren was sounded.

That night, Netanyahu called the four Likud ministers and testily ordered them to submit their letters of resignation from the cabinet immediately. He was up in arms about the fact that they are ministers, and he is a simple MK. As he sees it, he's right. How can you run a campaign like this? He's been the Likud chairman for nearly a month, two-and-a-half months remain until the election, and all through this period his hands will be tied because his ministers are having a fine old time in the cabinet. At first, they were all cozy with Sharon, the man who dismantled the Likud and brought catastrophe on the movement. And subsequently, they were getting cozy with Olmert, the prophet of disengagement, the man who emotionally seceded from the Likud long before Sharon.

But the real reason they stayed in the cabinet is their working assumption that five years of Likud rule will come to an end on March 28. This week's polls gave Kadima under Olmert a wide margin of victory over Likud and Labor, and Olmert, as the candidate for prime minister, a wide margin over Netanyahu and Peretz. The Likud ministers concluded that with or without Sharon, their movement is about to lose at least half of its strength in the 16th Knesset.

Netanyahu, they say, will no longer be able to hide behind any excuse. It's not him against Sharon anymore. It's him against Olmert - two equal candidates. Not a giant versus a dwarf. If in the Sharon era the Likud was talking about 20 seats as a success, in the Olmert era that would be considered a failure. The Likud has never received fewer than 32 seats in an election in which the single-ballot system was used. Netanyahu will have to come up with a lot of explanations if the party ends up with 20 seats. It isn't certain that anyone will want to hear them. It isn't certain anyone will want to hear from him.

In an election like this, you can never know what might be considered a failure and what might be considered a success, said a close aide to Labor chairman Peretz, adopting a philosophical tone of voice. There, in a single line, the aide had scripted Peretz's excuse for the day after. This is how you prepare an alibi. The following reasons will be ascribed to even the most catastrophic outcome: What the hell do they want from Peretz? Kadima took away 50 percent of our voters. We were abandoned by Peres and Ramon and Dalia Itzik, and with them a long list of activists. Ehud Barak didn't help. You say 18 seats is a failure? Maybe it's a success? Let's wait another three or four years. Kadima will break up, and then we'll show everyone who the real leader is.

Slow way to the top

Peretz is not fighting for the reins of power; he is fighting for his personal survival on the day after. A political figure in his party offered the following theory this week in regard to the Labor chairman: "Amir is saying to himself: Ten years ago, I was Haim Ramon's deputy in the Histadrut. Then I was chairman of the Histadrut, then I became the leader of a three-person faction in the Knesset, then I took over the Labor Party, shunting aside two former prime ministers, and by the end of March I will be leading a faction of 17, 18, maybe even 21 MKs."

In Peretz's terms, even if this election ends in humiliation, it is just another stage on his slow way to the top. A mere way station, said the source. This is why Peretz is not rushing to bring in Barak and put him near the top of the list, even though in his desperate situation he needs anyone he can get. He is already thinking of the next race, which according to the Labor constitution, must be held within 14 months of the Knesset election.

Peretz doesn't want Barak as number 2 on the list or as an important minister alongside him in an Olmert cabinet. After the election, he will bring Labor into the government at bargain-basement prices: four-five ministers, three deputy ministers, three committee chairmen and there you have it - most of the faction will be set up. Then Peretz, with the assistance of his heir in the Histadrut, Ofer Eini, will initiate a new party membership drive that will gain him victory in the next primaries.

To accomplish this goal, an alliance was forged between Peretz and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. How did we hear of the existence of such an alliance? Some people close to Peretz were recently talking with Barak's aides, and told them Peretz was now willing to bring in Ehud, but that Ben-Eliezer has vetoed it. Ben-Eliezer doesn't want Barak on the list, because he doesn't want the spot earmarked for a high-ranking security maven to be taken from him. Who knows? Maybe after the election Peretz will leave, the defense portfolio will be offered to Labor, and Ben-Eliezer, a past defense minister, will be the natural candidate.