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Observers who witnessed the fallout (harmless for now) from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's struggle yesterday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak over the defense budget shared the same conclusion: The days when Olmert welcomed the return of his old friend Barak into the political scene are long gone.

"The argument appeared to be very matter-of-fact, as though connected to the case at hand," one minister reported, "but it was clear that these were two political rivals. They both wanted to present themselves as masters of the house, the ones calling the shots. One was busy telling the other who was prime minister, and the other was trying to make clear that he was not a docile defense minister like his predecessor."

The ministers from the Labor Party, the main partner in the coalition with Olmert's Kadima, came out of the meeting in a slump. They had expected Olmert to go the extra mile and reach an understanding with Barak.

"The prime minister cannot engage in an arm-twisting match with a defense minister such as Barak, whose vast experience in security instills calm, stability and professionalism in the defense establishment," one minister from Labor said. But even he and his colleagues had to admit that Barak, too, could have been a bit more flexible.

"It doesn't look good, where this thing is heading. Neither of them seems to realize who they are, really. Barak has to comprehend that he isn't prime minister yet, while Olmert hasn't understood that Barak views himself as prime minister for all security-related issues."

At the end of the day, Barak failed yesterday. Only the ministers from Labor supported his proposal to postpone by three weeks the discussions on the implementation of the Brodet Commission's report on streamlining the defense establishment.

This carries a political significance: It means that the ministers from other partners in the coalition - hailing from Shas, the Pensioners Party and Yisrael Beiteinu - wanted to afford Barak a symbolic victory over Olmert.

Such a victory might serve to destabilize the government, whose fate lies in Barak's hands, as everybody knows. We will have early elections if and when he decides that he has had enough.

Suspicion toward Barak is mounting in the Olmert camp. They have reports that Barak is preparing for elections in mid-2008.

Until then, the two men can nurture their rivalry - which could benefit them both at the polls.