On the eve of Dan Halutz's appointment as chief of staff in the spring of 2005, someone asked the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, whether it was wise to appoint an air force man as chief of staff at that time. "You have nothing to worry about," Sharon said. "I'm here, aren't I?"
"And what will happen when you're not here?" the person asked. Sharon smiled his forgiving and understanding smile. "I'll always be here," he said.
Ten months later, on the eve of the last Knesset elections, someone asked Ehud Olmert, who was then acting in Sharon's stead, whether it was wise to appoint a civilian without any security-related knowledge or experience as defense minister at that time. "There's an excellent chief of staff," Olmert replied. "And I'll always be able to go over [Amir] Peretz's head and speak to Halutz."
Sharon has been in a coma for a year already, Halutz is heading toward a second career in civilian life, leaving Olmert and Peretz. These two, who give a bad name to the art of shady deals and intrigues, will continue to accompany us for somewhat longer - an undefined stretch of time. Both want to be rid of each other, and the public wants to be rid of both of them, but according to the hierarchy, the law and the government food chain, only Olmert can get rid of Peretz.
Last Friday, two hours after Olmert returned from China, he hosted a senior Labor Party official for breakfast at his official residence in Jerusalem. What do we do with Peretz? Olmert asked his guest. "When it comes to dismissal, there's nothing to talk about," said the official, who cannot be accused of being a Peretz supporter.
"If you fire him, you'll only help him in the primaries, we won't be able to stay in the government, and you'll damage the person you want as defense minister," the official said, referring to former prime minister Ehud Barak. "If you want to transfer him to another position, everything has to be agreed upon."
Olmert's guest said there are three issues that could alter the situation: the ruling in the forcible kissing trial of former justice minister Haim Ramon, due at the end of the month; the interim conclusions of the Winograd Commission examining the war in Lebanon, which are expected at the beginning of March; and the Labor Party primaries at the end of May.
This means that if Ramon is convicted, the justice portfolio will become available and can become part of a "respectable" offer to Peretz: maybe the interior and social welfare portfolios, maybe the social welfare and industry, trade and employment portfolios. The current industry and trade minister, Eli Yishai (Shas), could move over to the Interior Ministry and Roni Bar-On (Kadima) could land the justice portfolio. If Ramon is acquitted and returns to the Justice Ministry or gets another portfolio, Olmert will have to wait for the Winograd Commission. If it places most of the blame on Peretz, then Peretz will draw the necessary conclusions and resign. And if nothing else, then he will still leave after the primaries at the end of May.
The question is whether Olmert has patience. In contrast to commentators and politicians who saw Halutz's resignation this week as another nail in the prime minister's political coffin, Olmert sees it as an opportunity to improve his image and cleanse his sins, or at least a small portion of them. The round of consultations he is holding to choose a replacement for Halutz is almost unprecedented. Unlike Sharon, who primarily consulted with his son Omri, Olmert is meeting with former chiefs of staff, former defense ministers and former prime ministers. He is bringing everybody into the decision-making loop so that everyone will be just as responsible for this appointment as he is and so no one will be able to say that Olmert is acting rashly.
Peretz is motivated by similar considerations. He also sees Halutz's resignation as a chance to improve his position. He hopes the consensual appointment of a new chief of staff will reduce the pressure on him. This week Peretz said in a meeting that he has no intention of resigning before the Winograd Commission announces its findings. He fantasizes about coming out relatively clean. And then, from his perspective, the sky's the limit. But if the commission places the responsibility on him, then he won't wait a moment, but will draw the necessary conclusions.
That's what Peretz says. But others, including those who are close to him, believe that his resignation could be closer than he is letting on. Some think he will quit after the Labor Party census, and some think that if he does go, it will be a spontaneous emotional decision rather than a planned or rational move. One of Peretz's strong supporters said this week that if it were up to him, the defense minister would have quit already - not to go to any other ministry or to take up any "respectable offer," but to completely leave the government and restart his political career from scratch. In that scenario, Peretz would have become a regular MK without a camp and without supporters, just with his old beliefs that got him elected; he would get into his car and start traveling across the country in a kind of journey of penance and atonement.
Peretz knows he is living on borrowed time, until the Labor primaries, and the question he is pondering is what to do with that time. If Barak wins in May, he will get the defense portfolio - and he plans to bring Ami Ayalon into the government, at Peretz's expense. If Ayalon wins, he will take Peretz's position at the Defense Ministry, and will bring Avishay Braverman - for now, his only ally in the Labor faction - into the government, also at Peretz's expense. In any case, Peretz is due to lose his seat in the government. Perhaps it's worth to give up his seat of his own accord, voluntarily, which will at least win him a few calculated eulogies.
Shimon Peres was the first to give Olmert support. The day after the decision to begin a criminal investigation into Olmert's role in the sale of the state's controlling interest in Bank Leumi, Peres told Israel Radio interviewer Aryeh Golan: I believe in the prime minister's innocence.
Over the last few months, Peres has become Olmert's indefatigable supporter - even though he is not impressed by the prime minister's political performance or his efforts to make Barak - one of the fathers of the "no partner" approach - defense minister. Peres said he just wanted to exude some calm. The situation toward which Israel is heading worries him, strategically. Israel seems quite weak right now, with a chief of staff who resigned, a prime minister under investigation and a government awaiting the decision of an inquiry committee, to the point where one of our enemies could start getting ideas.
Olmert doesn't have a lot of supporters like Peres in Kadima. One faction member said this week that he has a list of 15 Kadima MKs, out of 29 faction members, who are ready to split off and form their own faction at any moment, while holding on to the name "Kadima" since they form the majority of the party's MKs. It sounds unrealistic, but it will sound less and less unrealistic the deeper Olmert sinks into the mire of all the scandals surrounding him.
The decision to open a criminal investigation into Olmert's role in the Bank Leumi sale came as a surprise to his bureau. Their assessment was that the bank deal was the least serious of the three investigations conducted by the state comptroller. (The two others are the Investment Center scandal, in which Olmert is suspected of giving preference to clients of his long-time partner, attorney Uri Messer, and the political appointments scandal involving the Israel Small and Medium Enterprises Authority.)
The conclusion is that Olmert's bureau is also expecting him to come under criminal investigation for the other two matters. These investigations will wear him out in the coming year, will gnaw away at the remnants of confidence and support he has, and will put in doubt his ability to take care of Israel's existential problems. If Olmert succeeds with the Winograd Commission, he'll be able to continue faltering along for at least another year, until the investigations are decided one way or the other.
On Wednesday evening, Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu held a consultation of his own. Not about the identity of the next chief of staff, but about what he needs to do in light of recent developments. For six months already, Netanyahu has been wandering around with the feeling that this tower called the Olmert government is about to collapse on its inhabitants, and that he, Bibi, will be the victor bursting forth from the rubble with an expanded faction, bolstered by Kadima dropouts, that will grant him a parliamentary majority allowing him to form a coalition.
But it's not happening. The coalition is still intact. The government is absorbing blow after blow, as is the prime minister, but there is as yet no critical mass that would put an end to the whole matter. The Knesset doesn't want elections, and the coalition parties certainly don't. All of them, aside from Yisrael Beiteinu, are expected to lose seats in the next elections, and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman isn't rushing anywhere either, for his own reasons. He is waiting for a reorganization in the government so he can bring in Esterina Tratman, that wise sage, as another Yisrael Beiteinu minister.
Netanyahu cannot say a word about the investigation of Olmert's role in the Bank Leumi sale. He has also been investigated, more than once, and in his case there was also a recommendation of indictment. Bibi is silent on the matter of corruption. And Barak, who is dragging around a closed case, also won't be piling difficulties on Olmert. The prime minister's club is keeping mum.
The two people who will try to milk some political capital out of the stench at the top are Ayalon and Ophir Pines, both of whom are running for the Labor chairmanship. This past week, after the Olmert investigation became public, Ayalon's staff prepared to begin a major anti-corruption campaign. But a few hours after the announcement of the investigation came the announcement of Halutz's resignation, and the agenda changed completely. It's okay, Ayalon's people said, corruption will wait a few more days. It won't run away. It's here to stay.