Ehud Barak illustration
Illustration. Photo by Eran Wolkowski
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Of the 13 Labor representatives in the Knesset, four are constant flight risks; some constantly vote against the government. The party, which purports to represent peace, tolerance and equality, is in a government with an ultra-nationalist agenda that discriminates against foreigners and hates gentiles.

Minister Isaac Herzog says the party will quit in January or February; Minister Avishai Braverman says February or March. For his part, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who regularly denounces the government, told Haaretz's Mazal Mualem that in April he will quit the government, along with the rest of the party.

Why April?

Ben-Eliezer: "Because after the Knesset's winter session [at the end of March], there will be nothing left to do. That will be it, time to go to elections. Three or four months are left to revive the peace process, and after that - do you know what's waiting for us after that?"

What?

"The abyss. Political isolation. Economic sanctions, censure in the United Nations, an Islamic Middle East, sweeping international recognition of a Palestinian state that will include Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel."

What are you doing about that?

"Believe me, I'm much more pessimistic than you are. I know the facts; I read the material and I have experience. The only thing that worries me is the state's future."

Have you said all this to the prime minister?

"During a private meeting, I said: Bibi, up to now I've given you my total backing. But I regret having to tell you that if the rules of the game don't change with you, I won't be there any longer, and I'll take the party with me. That's it, the game's over."

The way you and your colleagues are conducting affairs doesn't embarrass you? What about all the threats, target dates and ultimatums?

"I hear what you're saying. At my age, I've stopped worrying about what grade I'm going to get from the teacher. I only know that the Labor Party has taken so many blows that we've become a target for anyone who wants to shoot at us."

So ...

"There is no 'so.' Very soon, it will be over."

Over the past week, Netanyahu and Ben-Eliezer spent a lot of time together. Yesterday Netanyahu took Ben-Eliezer to a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Two days ago, Ben-Eliezer was invited to attend a meeting of Netanyahu's forum of seven. Netanyahu also approved Ben-Eliezer's request to allow more than 4,000 Palestinian laborers to enter Israel.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has one loyal colleague, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, who this week announced that he intends to vie for the top job at the Jewish National Fund, because "the country's landscape is dear to his heart."

Long ago, Barak lost his "Mr. Security" title to outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. This week, Barak's political reliability and prestige suffered a blow when Haaretz's Barak Ravid reported that senior U.S. government officials have lost faith in the defense minister, and in his promises that Netanyahu would soon deliver the goods on the peace process. Some of Barak's aides believe that a person very close to the opposition was a source for Ravid's report.

This week Barak took part in a conference on Israel and Iran at Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv.

"There is no chance that the world will be ready to accept us controlling another people for 43 years," he said there. "The only path for Zionism to follow today is the one leading to two states for two peoples. The alternatives - whether it is Belfast, or Bosnia, and I don't want to be extreme and say the old South Africa - are terrible, and they make us reach bold decisions."

Barak continued: "There are short-sighted people who ask us why we are waiting in the government, and why we don't see what is clear to everyone: that this government will not do anything ... If I become convinced that there is no possibility of reaching an accord, we will examine our options and leave the government ... There is no need to be blind, and ignore the reality and the writing on the wall. At the same time, you don't need to accept the thought that the world turns thanks to idle talk and sound bites - it doesn't."

That was Ehud Barak's sound bite.

Scent of elections

Signs that elections are approaching can be discerned in flamboyant or intemperate acts by Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, whether on conversion issues or housing, or denunciations issued by - or about - opposition party Kadima. They include a statement by Netanyahu in the Knesset, and the maneuvering by Histadrut labor federation chief Ofer Eini and Manufacturers Association head Shraga Brosh to increase the minimum wage, at the expense of Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

Another sign flashed this week: Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz, the new chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, delivered a speech on Tuesday from the Knesset rostrum as the prime minister listened.

Here are some select quotes from that speech: "Mr. Prime Minister: Yesterday you appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and I am embarrassed for you! We are almost the same age, and we've managed to do a few things in our lives, and we know what responsibility means ...

"Your words were irresponsible. Where are you taking us? What route have you chosen? What ambush are you setting for Israel? Do you want to move us toward another war? You have no map, no flashlight to light the darkness, you don't have a clue where the target is located, you are moving in the dark. And I thought you knew how to navigate. Pilots call what is happening to you vertigo; for us, here on land, we call it losing one's way.

"Mr. Prime Minister: You've lost touch with reality ... From my discussions, I've gained the impression that people don't believe you - neither the Americans, the Palestinians, the Egyptians nor the Jordanians. If you lack the ability to advance things, to initiate, to prevent war and to attain peace, you should give somebody else the keys."

A look of amazed consternation spread over Netanyahu's face. This is the person he had given the reins of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whom he believed "could be trusted"?

Like everyone else, Mofaz believes that elections are on the horizon, and that means that Kadima's primaries will also be held soon. He knows that the person who heads the Kadima list will be the main alternative to Netanyahu. Mofaz intends to turn his prestigious post into a weapon against the man who gave it to him. When he stepped down from the rostrum, several MKs from his Kadima party shook his hand. They, too, don't know what's going on in his head.

Katsav's wrongdoings

Last Friday, a day after former President Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape, I republished a story that had been printed exactly four and a half years ago, right after the whole scandal erupted. The story referred to events that occured at the beginning of August 2000, a few days after the Knesset elected Katsav Israel's eighth president.

Likud leaders then learned that a major newspaper intended to publish a report including compromising, embarrassing details about the new president's treatment of women. Likud chairman Ariel Sharon - for whom Katsav's triumph over coalition candidate Shimon Peres was a major personal victory - did not want his prodigy to be kept out of the President's Residence. He called the newspaper's editor and asked him to axe the story. The seventh president, Ezer Weizman, had resigned amid a financial scandal. Sharon asked whether citizens really needed to go through this again, with the new president. And Sharon also told the editor: If the woman never lodged a complaint with the police, her testimony isn't anything more than gossip, and it isn't worthy of publication. The report was never published.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, then chairman of the Knesset's Likud faction, sat next to Sharon during this telephone conversation. He remembers all the details.

"I was the one who came to Sharon and told him: Listen, they're going to publish a report about Katsav. Something about young women. Sharon happened to be in my office. I asked for the phone number of the newspaper editor. Sharon called him. I don't know what the editor said on the other end; I only heard Arik speak. The only thing I know is that the report was never published. Perhaps the editor withheld the piece; perhaps he told Arik it was the wrong newspaper. I don't know."

In retrospect, are you comfortable with your response?

Rivlin: "What we heard was a rumor. Nothing about rape - at the time it seemed like an effort to tarnish Katsav's election ... On a personal level, I didn't know what all of these unpublished things were about. When the scandal erupted, I was very surprised."

A month before the presidential elections, a woman turned to one of Peres' senior associates and told him that her friend had been sexually harassed by Katsav while he was transportation minister. The friend had had a senior position in Katsav's office. Haaretz published a story about this woman's appeal on July 14, 2006, as the scandal was just beginning.

The aide remembers this incident well: "One day S. told me: 'You've got to stop this sex maniac.' I didn't understand what she was talking about. I asked her: which sex maniac. She told me about her friend, and what she had endured in Katsav's office. About how he would ask her to come in a white shirt to the office, and then throw water her so her shirt would become transparent. She told me that this man should never become president. I sent her to get her friend. She returned to me, disappointed, and told me that the friend didn't want to lodge a complaint, and that she didn't want her story to become public.

What did you do?

"Nothing. I didn't even tell Peres."

Not much had to happen to stop Katsav from being elected president in 2000: One woman had to tell her story in order to ignite a chain reaction that would have altered the history of the state of Israel - or, at least, make it a bit less disgraceful.