Haaretz reported yesterday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will decide which senior ministerial portfolio in his restructured government will be offered to the Labor Party depending on who wins its primary: Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon. If Barak, a strategist par excellence, is victorious, he will be given defense, which will be taken from Amir Peretz. However, if the victor is Ayalon, who is an ally of Peretz and is partnered with MK Avishai Braverman, then Olmert will give him the treasury and transfer defense to Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.
By revealing his intentions, Olmert is carrying out a twin maneuver: internally and externally. Internally, for the ears of his Kadima party, he is signaling that he is capable of promoting another senior minister as a potential rival along with Tzipi Livni, who called for his resignation, but has kept quiet and stayed in his government. Externally, for the Knesset, the public and perhaps even the Bush administration, which will host him next week, he is trying to give the impression of stability and that he is a survivor. The message is that it does not matter who will head Labor tomorrow; the sole question is which portfolio in the Olmert cabinet he will hold.
Olmert appears to be a believer in the age-old principle of George Bernard Shaw that once the principle is established, all that is left to decide is the price. Olmert seems to know what his clientele, Labor, is all about. Just like after the first round of the Labor primary, yesterday's rivals fell into each other's arms - Ayalon and Peretz, Barak and Ophir Pines, in emotional displays that were out of sync with their original declarations. Olmert assumes that following the closing of the ballot boxes and counting of the votes, the new Labor leader will agree to be led, just like Peretz did this past year.
According to all polls and indications, the struggle between Barak and Ayalon will be decided by a small number of votes. The voter turnout, the degree to which factional discipline will be maintained and the level of organization for busing voters could have a greater effect than a last-minute change in political positions. But, if there is still a bloc of voters that has not decided whether to cast their votes, and if so, for whom, it is hoped that their decision stems from the strength of the candidates' commitment not to serve in a government headed by Olmert.
The correct public, political and even ethical position of the new Labor leader needs to outrightly reject staying in Olmert's cabinet, even if this view does not receive the majority of votes from the party's central committee. Because, if this is not the case, there is no meaning to the term "leader." Labor should announce without delay that it intends to leave the government and hold negotiations for joining a cabinet headed by a different Kadima representative, or even make the effort to put together a government under its leadership (which is a possibility only if Ayalon, who is an MK, is victorious). Of course, as Labor negotiates over the composition of the new government, the type of portfolios it will hold are important.
The decision today is Labor's to make. Starting tomorrow, the decision will move to Kadima: either a different leadership and a continued coalition partnership with Labor, or preparations for elections.