Illustration Jan. 21, 2011 (Amos Biderman)
Illustration Photo by Amos Biderman
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On Monday morning, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin (Fuad ) Ben-Eliezer was in Umm al-Fahm on a professional tour with the ministry's directors. At about 8:30 A.M. his mobile phone vibrated. It was his deputy, MK Orit Noked.

"Fuad," she said, "I want to tell you something I haven't told my children yet." She told him a new party was forming, and that she might be joining it. Ben-Eliezer listened, but didn't really understand. A few minutes later the phone vibrated again. This time it was Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Now Fuad understood.

As his ministerial car raced to Jerusalem, and he realized this had been his last tour as a minister, Ben-Eliezer reconstructed the events of the past 24 hours. Why didn't I see what was going on right under my nose? he berated himself.

Last week he decided that the Labor Party convention would meet on March 17 and would give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a one-month extension of the deadline for beginning direct talks with the Palestinians - otherwise, Labor would quit the coalition in mid-April. Practically speaking, this was a move to depose Barak.

Ben-Eliezer's media advisor, Asaf Azoulay, wanted to send an announcement about this to reporters on Sunday afternoon, but Ben-Eliezer nixed it: Not before I tell Ehud, he said. That day the defense minister did not show up for the Labor ministers' meeting, which is held every Sunday before the cabinet meeting. Nor did he show up for the cabinet meeting itself. Ben-Eliezer started looking for him. Barak's staff told him he wasn't feeling well. In the afternoon Ben-Eliezer caught him on the phone. "I have to talk to you," he said.

"It's best not to," replied Barak. "I'm sick. We'll talk tomorrow morning."

Barak stood by his word. The next morning he called Ben-Eliezer.

On Wednesday I asked Ben-Eliezer whether he thought his frequent threats and his statement several months ago that Barak is not fit to head the Labor Party might have pushed the latter out.

"Possibly," he replied. "But I also took more blows for him than anyone else. No one did more than I did to get him elected. No one tried more than I did to help him. The problem is that this man is an emotional and political cripple."

You hoped to be temporary party chairman and they aren't even giving you that.

Ben-Eliezer: "I didn't ask for it. I don't even understand what's so great about them letting you go into the party's sewer and cleaning it up for three or four months - and then someone else comes along and takes the party from you."

Maybe because some people believe you'll find it convenient to stay there.

"True. There are people who would think that of me."

Ben-Eliezer's successor at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry is Shalom Simhon. The two men loathe each other. In the last elections Ben-Eliezer wanted a reserved place on the party list. He didn't get it, and blamed Simhon. His associates vowed to take revenge, and an opportunity came along when Simhon wanted to be appointed Jewish National Fund chairman. Ben-Eliezer's bureau worked energetically to thwart that appointment. Now it was Simhon's turn to take revenge on him, by means of the split and his deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak to receive the Industry, Trade and Labor portfolio.

Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini was also caught with his pants down. Eini's power over the prime minister used to lay in his ability to pull the Labor Party out of the government at any moment, but now he has to make a choice: to resign from the Histadrut and go into business, or to spur strikes in the economy for various nonsensical reasons.

People who talked to Netanyahu this week found him in an arrogant mood. In private conversations, he said Labor could get 15 Knesset seats in the next elections if a young, charismatic social democrat-type heads it. He rebuffed accusations of an alleged agreement with Barak over the defense portfolio in the next government: He didn't ask and I didn't offer, and I have no idea what his plans are, Netanyahu said.

He got a kick out of the wild ruckus Kadima MKs caused when they pulled out air fresheners in the Knesset plenum Wednesday and started spraying as an act of protest. They sprayed in the right place, the premier said: When they split from the Likud and got a fistful of portfolios, everything was hunky-dory because they went left. When this happens in our direction, heaven help us.

In recent weeks, said Netanyahu, I saw all the new people who joined Kadima - Jacob Perry, Dan Halutz, Alik Ron, Gilad Sharon and that guy, Bat Yam Mayor Shlomo Lahiani. They figured that any minute now the government would fall. I have news for them: not so fast.

He is apparently very comfortable with the Atzmaut quintet. The portfolios? Nu, what can you do? Clearly the break-aways were expecting recompense for their move. Netanyahu isn't the first to have handed out portfolios generously.

Netanyahu doesn't stop repeating his narrative: The split will benefit the peace process. The Palestinians felt the government was close to falling and therefore they didn't come to the table. Now they understand the government is here to stay.

Apart from Ehud Barak, no one is buying the premier's line. One person who is far from impressed is President Shimon Peres. In many conversations he held after the split this week, he sounded bleaker and more despairing than ever.

"What peace process is going to come out of this from those two?" he fumed to anyone who was also fuming. "Diplomatic isolation - that yes."

Five years ago Peres abandoned the Labor Party moments after he lost the chairmanship to Amir Peretz, and moved to Ariel Sharon's Kadima. He used exactly the same arguments of advancing peace we heard this week from Ehud Barak. He believed himself. He believed Sharon. But he doesn't believe Barak and Netanyahu now. On Monday Peres will deliver a special speech in the Knesset to mark its birthday. It will be worth listening to.

Red line

In this week's Haaretz-Dialog public opinion poll, Netanyahu fell below the red line: More than half of the respondents are not satisfied with his performance. And he repeatedly tells his advisers that a leader whose rating drops below the 50-percent mark should be worried.

A large proportion of the public believes that during the government's tenure these past two years, Israel's situation has worsened. Before that, the prime minister was Ehud Olmert - the most hated of all premiers. Even more than half the Likud voters think the country is in bad shape now. Many of the Likud members who meet the party's ministers and MKs on their nocturnal swings from branch to branch express anger and disappointment with Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Not because of the diplomatic stagnation, but rather because of the cruel tax increases on fuel and water, and housing costs.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu's tenure is not in danger. If elections were held today, he could easily cobble together a new government. According to the survey, supervised by Prof. Camil Fuchs at Tel Aviv University's statistics department, the Likud/right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc would get stronger, with 69 MKs, whereas the center-left bloc would get only 51 seats.

In terms of suitability to be prime minister, Netanyahu trounces opposition leader Kadima MK Tzipi Livni 48 percent to 31 percent. As prime minister, Netanyahu may not be answering to most voters' expectations, but they prefer him to the only alternative.

Though Livni succeeded in raking in two more Knesset seats for her party from the Labor Party in the last elections, as per this poll, they are likely to return to Labor once it gets back on its feet, chooses a leader and embarks on a new path.

That said, a word of warning: We are prisoners of the concept of blocs - right versus left. But who says, for example, that after the next elections, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman won't sign a coalition agreement with Livni, making her prime minister and settling an account with Netanyahu? Lieberman is capable of anything - otherwise he wouldn't be Lieberman.

The breakaway by Barak and his pals to form Atzmaut (which means "independence" in Hebrew ) also gave Labor, well, more independence - from those who broke away. If the mutual loathing among the eight remaining MKs were to be converted into energy, it could heat all of Ramat Gan. Ben-Eliezer calls MK Shelly Yachimovich "a turbine of hatred." She considers him worse than Barak.

From the survey it emerges that without a leader, Labor would win only five seats, like Meretz. However, if Yachimovich heads the party, it would get 10. Isaac Herzog would bring in eight seats. Amram Mitzna would get nine. From here it's only up. Voters should change their mindset and stop thinking about Labor as a ruling party. One could now consider it a midsized social-democratic party.

Barak's situation is dreadful. Less than a third of the respondents are satisfied with his performance as defense minister. His years at the Defense Ministry, first under Olmert and now under Netanyahu, may have been Israel's best, security-wise, but this man is now so hated as a politician and as a person that people will not give him credit for anything. His party, Atzmaut, would get about the minimum needed to make it into the Knesset, says the survey.

The poll also examined two potential new political forces: Yair Lapid and Aryeh Deri. If either founds a new party, he would get about 7 percent of votes, meaning 8 or 9 Knesset seats. This is an utterly virtual scenario, but it still shows something. The blocs will not be the same again.