Keeping Kadima headed forward
With the interim Winograd Committee report due out on Monday and more troubles on the horizon, Ehud Olmert's main task now is keeping his party colleagues from bolting.
"How will you get out of it?" one of the people closest to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked not long ago. The person thought a little and answered sadly: "It could be that we won't get out of it. It's not possible to get out of everything."
This week, though, no remnants of that unusual frankness was in evidence. A few days before the release of the interim Winograd report on last summer's war in Lebanon, the fortifications were intact and the message was uniform: We will get out of it! Olmert's associates, and the prime minister himself, are convinced they have done everything humanly possible to make sure the report does minimal damage. They reached out to United Torah Judaism MKs Avraham Ravitz and Moshe Gafni, to make sure they have a blocking majority in the Knesset, in case the Labor Party goes nuts and quits; they spoke to market leaders about the economic disaster that would hit Israel if a Likud-right-Haredi government were to be formed; they convinced left-wing leaders that Olmert is dying to make peace if he only gets the chance; and most importantly, they worked to keep all those characters in Kadima quiet.
Indeed, it is Olmert's own party that is his primary concern, for only an internal putsch could finish him off. He's not worried about any threat posed by the depleted opposition, which is split between right and left and most of whose members don't want elections now. Nor is he overly troubled by the media, which has been kicking him mercilessly for eight months now, or even about the rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square being organized by Uzi Dayan, head of the Tafnit political movement, along with Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu and Meretz-Yachad leader Yossi Beilin. Kadima: From Olmert's perspective, that's the source of all ills, and that's where he is waiting to fight the battle of his life.
Olmert's associates consider everything to be under control at Kadima. Last week, as reported in Haaretz, the party's MKs were summoned to the Prime Minister's Office for meetings with adviser Oved Yehezkel that were meant to persuade them to back Olmert; the meetings are still continuing. To crack the hard cases, Olmert came in to speak to the politicians personally, to butter them up and make requests. MK Shai Hermesh was not a hard case. He settled for a meeting with Yehezkel, in which Hermesh said he was told that "Ehud will need soldiers right after the report is released. He expects the Kadima MKs to fight to the end for him. I am sure that as long as the man is politically alive, there won't be anyone who rises against him and kicks him in the rear. As long as he holds the job, as long as he manages to survive the criticism, no one in Kadima will show him the door. Certainly not over the interim report - after all, the report concerns the first five days [of the war], when the entire country and the entire cabinet was with him."
Hermesh's comments imply that Olmert's situation is liable to change after the Winograd Committee issues its final report, this summer. "I don't know what will happen," Hermesh said. "If Olmert doesn't stay, we'll have to select a new leader to safeguard Kadima. It doesn't have to be someone who made a ton of parachute jumps or killed a lot of terrorists." The message is clear: Hermesh is with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (although no one knows how many terrorist deaths she was responsible for when she served in the Mossad in her youth).
As for Hermesh, this week he also met with Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who is organizing the ranks for Livni within the party. Hermesh said that Dichter told him that if Olmert goes, then Kadima must support Livni. Nevertheless, according to Hermesh, Dichter has no intention of stabbing Olmert in the back. Olmert's people, meanwhile, suspect that it was Livni who leaked incriminating and embarrassing material on the prime minister to journalists Ofer Shelah and Yoav Limor for their new book on the war, "Shvuyim belevanon: ha'emet al milkhemet levanon hashniya" ("Captives in Lebanon").
Many people will be waiting to hear what Livni has to say about the Winograd report on Monday night. If she says nothing, she will come off as a coward. If she supports Olmert, she will look like a liar. And if she comes out against him, she will be taking a risk that could cost her her job - if he keeps his.
All together now
If Olmert was depressed or worried this week in anticipation of the Winograd report and the comptroller's report on alleged financial improprieties from his time at the Industry and Trade Ministry's Investment Center, it was not evident at an Independence Day eve sing-along with friends at a private home in Tel Aviv. He told his friends that everything would be all right and spoke of the lobbying of Kadima members on his behalf as well as his "excellent" meeting with writer Amos Oz, who is meant to deliver the left to his door.
There are certain people without whom Olmert does not make a move: his chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz; Uri Shani, who served as prime minister Ariel Sharon's bureau chief; and external consultant Tal Zilberstein. In the coming days, the days of Winograd, they will be asked to provide daily advice on how to break out of the siege.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written in the past few months predicting the aftermath of the interim Winograd report. Now the time has come; it's so close you can touch it. Olmert - a prime minister who gained office by chance, without intending to, without even developing an obsession for the job - will meet his fate. The next three months will present him with several tests of survival. It is difficult to imagine him passing them unscathed.
First, the interim Winograd report. Two and a half weeks later, the transcripts of his testimony before the committee, as well as that of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and former chief of staff Dan Halutz, will be released. The transcripts are expected to embarrass Olmert and expose a leadership whose individual members are each trying to blame the other. Finally, in the summer, probably in July, the final Winograd report will come out.
In the background, the various criminal investigations into Olmert's activities continue to pile up. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss is not letting up. He is set to submit his report on alleged improprieties concerning Olmert's purchase of a home on Cremieux Street in Jerusalem. If the rumors are true, other matters are also being investigated.
No matter what the Winograd report says about Olmert, Netanyahu and the Likud will call for his resignation and new elections. That is the strategy set during recent meetings in the Likud chairman's office. The next few months will bring some tough tests for Netanyahu as well: His nightmare scenario is that Olmert survives and Ehud Barak is elected Labor Party chairman and appointed defense minister. At the same time, a new minister is brought in to head the treasury and the domestic political scene calms down. Alternately, Olmert goes, Vice Premier Shimon Peres takes the reins, Barak or MK Ami Ayalon (Labor) gets the Defense Ministry, Haim Ramon or Roni Bar-On (both from Kadima) takes over at Finance, and everything calms down for at least a year. Either option would sentence Netanyahu to an extended sojourn in the opposition wilderness. Even the optimistic polls could be turned on their heads.
In the meantime, without elections, Netanyahu will have nothing to do but ponder what would happen if there were elections. About two months ago, he spoke to a mutual friend of his and Barak's. If there are elections, the friend said Netanyahu told him, then I become prime minister; do you think Ehud would agree to be my defense minister?
The mutual friend said he thought there was a chance, and put the question to Barak a few weeks later. Barak didn't rule out the possibility; he doesn't have an "I'm the commando unit head and I won't serve under someone who served under me" complex. Barak also said that if he were elected prime minister, he certainly sees Netanyahu as his foreign minister. Barak and Netanyahu, said the mutual friend, see eye to eye on 80 percent of the issues.
But Barak has not been elected yet and he faces a tough fight against Ayalon. Until recently, Netanyahu thought Barak would win the Labor primaries, and is surprised that his lead is not greater. Netanyahu expects the main struggle will be between Likud and Labor in the next election, with both parties fighting for the votes of Kadima, the defunct Shinui party and the Pensioners Party, which is expected to disappear from the scene. In order to improve his chances of winning these centrist votes, Netanyahu is making an effort to bring in new faces, although that also includes those, such as Dan Meridor, who left the Likud because of him.
For his part, Barak is preparing for his first public test since the Labor campaign began: the rally next Thursday in Rabin Square. The rally preents quite the headache for Barak, whose primary rival, Ayalon, has confirmed his participation. If the assembly calls on Olmert to resign, then Ayalon, just by dint of being there, will have disqualified himself from joining an Olmert government if he is elected Labor chair; the same holds true for Barak, if he attends. But if Barak does not go, then his absence will be interpreted as an expression of approval for Olmert, which could in turn affect his chances in the Labor primaries next month. Barak is mulling the issue over and is not expected to decide until the last minute.
Sami Shoshan leaned on the long table and cast an experienced eye over the crowd wandering around the Defense Ministry lawn as Independence Day came to a close. He knew many of the guests at the party thrown by his brother-in-law, Amir Peretz: Labor Party activists, Peretz's soldiers in the primaries. They were the real, if undeclared, reason for the event. Of the 5,500 invited guests, 2,500 came - and about 2,000 of them were Laborites. The rest were journalists and various and sundry others, including an occasional army officer in uniform. This used to be their party, held in their honor and on their behalf. Not anymore, not in the Peretz era.
Shoshan, who is married to a sister of Peretz's, is an important man for the Peretz activists; he is considered the defense minister's closest confidant. "Our people are concentrated in the South, in the North, in the moshavim," said Shoshan. "On May 28, 90 percent will come out to vote [in the Labor primaries]. The regular voter turnout for the party is 60 percent. This way, we'll finish it off in the first round. And if not, then in the second round. Against Barak, I hope. We'll mention what a failed prime minister he was. How he went off to make money. We know why they are riding Amir - it's because he's from Sderot, not the kibbutzim. He didn't study at Kadoorie [Agricultural School], he's not connected. That's how he was elected in the past and that's how he'll be elected again."
Nonetheless, Shoshan is asked, hasn't everyone abandoned Peretz? "Who's everyone?" he asks, furrowing his brow.
What about Yuval Elbashan, the founder and director of the Center for Clinical Legal Education for Human Rights and Social Responsibility at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem? "'Bashan," said Shoshan, snorting in contempt. "'Bashan didn't understand that you can't carry out a revolution in half a year."
And Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich? "Shelly?" he said. "Shelly's abandoned? Shelly hasn't abandoned [us]."
Well, what about poet Natan Zach, who supports Laborite Ophir Pines-Paz? "Natan Zach is a media mistake," Shoshan proclaims. "He's with Amir."
"When Amir wins, he'll demand the treasury," Shoshan constinued. "And if Olmert doesn't give it to him, he will be an excellent opposition leader. I told him after the elections, 'Don't join [the government].' Out of responsibility, he joined. And of course there were the prostitutes. The prostitutes of the party, the ones who wanted to be ministers at any price. They forced him."
The defense minister himself stood 60 meters away and embraced his supporters. For them, he's still the winning card. The same couldn't be said about how a visiting American Israel Public Affairs Committee delegation views Peretz. When major AIPAC donors arrived in Israel on Independence Day, they met with three public figures: Olmert, Livni and Peres. They didn't even ask to see Peretz. For them, he's history. In Peres, who will be celebrating his 84th birthday in three months, they see a young man with a future ahead of him.