Barak's Sinking Ship

The media frenzy this week about his wife's company didn't help, but Barak's standing in the polls is already dropping - and he's taking the Labor Party with him.

After three weeks of almost total invisibility, he's back with a vengeance: Ehud Olmert is still prime minister. This week he "considered firing" Defense Minister Ehud Barak, threatened to take "measures" against his coalition partners should they dare to vote against the budget, threatened Lebanon with war if it becomes a Hezbollah state, held meetings on security and other issues, visited the Home Front Command base, and joined forces with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in defense of the political legacy of the Second Lebanon War - i.e., UN Security Council Resolution 1701. In less than a month, after the election of his successor in Kadima, Olmert is supposed to go to President Shimon Peres and resign officially. In the meantime, he is looking at the polls, such as that being published here. Kadima without him is soaring like a balloon, bidding farewell to long months of stagnation and treading water. Ehud Barak, who has dug Olmert's political grave, is becoming entangled in personal affairs and is sinking together with the Labor Party he heads.

An examination of the Haaretz-Dialog Poll, conducted this week, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University's Department of Statistics, shows that Nili Priel-Barak should probably reopen the PR business she shut down this week, following Raviv Drucker's report about it on the Channel 10 news. Her husband's political future is in doubt: Twelve or 13 seats in a poll constitutes a new low for Labor. The ultimatum Barak gave Kadima after the testimony of U.S. businessman Morris Talansky extricated Kadima from an existential crisis - and killed the Labor Party.

The affair of Priel-Barak and her company has a bad smell of money about it. Not surprisingly, no one from the Labor Knesset faction rushed to Barak's defense in the media, just as none of his colleagues stood by him when he attacked "Tzipora" Livni. Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu also sometimes screws up, and he, too, is involved in affairs redolent of money and hedonism. But at least he gets votes.

Livni's potential

This week, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni continues to maintain a comfortable lead over her main rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, and is the only politician threatening Netanyahu's prospects of returning to the Prime Minister's Office. But the Kadima voters whose support affords Livni 28 seats tend to treat her only like an electoral profit-bearing share. When asked which candidate they rely on most to manage the country's affairs, only 21 percent of Kadima voters want her to be the one that "answers the red phone at 3 A.M." When it comes to this, Mofaz gets 33 percent, whereas Netanyahu gets 22 percent from Kadima voters - 1 percent more than Livni.

Among Likud voters, 74 percent support Netanyahu when it comes to the question, "Who do you rely on most?" By comparison, Barak gets only 58 percent from Labor voters. Among the entire public, Livni gets 18 percent support and Netanyahu 28 percent; the highest rate of support goes to "no one" (29 percent) - further evidence of the leadership crisis in Israel.

The poll examined the possibility that Livni will leave Kadima if she loses the primary to Mofaz. It turns out that she has the potential - albeit, virtual at this stage - to win 10-12 seats as head of a new party. A senior figure in the Livni camp told his activists this week: "If Mofaz beats us, we will look at the government he forms, at its basic guidelines and at its policy regarding peace talks with the Palestinians and the Syrians. After that we will decide whether we will vote for his government in the Knesset. He should not think he has us in his pocket. We did not leave the Likud to go back to him."

The poll shows that Livni is ahead of Mofaz by 13 percent (39 percent versus 26 percent) in the Kadima primary, and enjoys a slightly higher lead among the registered party members who say they are sure they will vote. However, she and her staff are concerned that organized voting will decide the contest, and not in her favor.

There is an unknown number of double registered voters - Likud members - in Kadima, perhaps a few thousand. When all that is needed to win in the first round is a mere 15,000 votes, those few thousand dual registrants could well play a significant role. The Likud has a vested interest in a Mofaz victory. He poses less of a threat to Netanyahu, and is considered a natural partner of the Likud in the next government. Therefore, it is quite possible that the identity of the next Kadima leader will be decided by registered Likud members.

Missed opportunity

After Netanyahu lost to Barak in the May 1999 elections, the Likud decided to elect a temporary chairman until its primary, set for September of that year. MK Yisrael Katz conducted a survey in the Likud central committee to examine the prospects of Ariel Sharon, Meir Sheetrit and Ehud Olmert. In this poll, Sheetrit obtained 50 percent, Sharon and Olmert 25 percent each. Katz took the results to Sheetrit and advised him to run for temporary party chairman. Forget it, Sheetrit said. I am not interested in becoming temporary chairman; I will run in the primary. Sharon said he wanted the interim job, was elected, and then made the necessary changes in the Likud apparatus. Sharon knew that Likudniks would never oust a party leader, even a temporary one.

"True," Interior Minister Sheetrit admits today, "that was a mistake." His seniority and his political, ministerial and parliamentary experience are leaving no impression on the voters in the race for the Kadima leadership. "I would not have dared to run for prime minister after just two years in the Knesset," he says, referring to Mofaz and to the fourth Kadima candidate, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter - "the inexperienced people who will bring about Kadima's total collapse. If any of them will manage the party's affairs until the elections, Kadima will not get even one seat," Sheetrit says.

The feeling one gets after a conversation with him is that if he had to, Sheetrit would vote for Livni. "If I were not in the race," he says, "Mofaz would beat Livni with ease." This observation is consistent with survey data showing that he and Dichter are taking more votes away from Mofaz than from Livni.

"If Mofaz wins," Sheetrit adds, "Kadima will become Likud 2. The voters will prefer the original [Netanyahu] over the zigzagger. Mofaz registered lots of voters. He returned Kadima to the darkest days of the Likud."

Two months ago, Sheetrit read Mofaz's remarks about attacking Iran, and now, in the midst of the contest for Kadima leadership, he chooses to respond. "Israel must on no account attack Iran," he says. "Israel must defend itself only if attacked by Iran, but attacking Iran on our own initiative is a megalomaniacal reckless idea. Israel is a small country, and its role is to make the world aware of the issue. Israel should certainly not be the one to attack or talk about attacking. Iran is not all that much of a threat, and there is no need to frighten us every morning. I am not sure that when Iran has nuclear weapons it will immediately use them against us."

Sheetrit is a regular participant in meetings of the security cabinet, and in the past two years has received intelligence updates in his capacity as the minister responsible, on behalf of the prime minister, for the secret services (the Mossad espionage agency, the Shin Bet security service, the Atomic Energy Commission and Military Intelligence).

"Israel must deploy for the option that Iran will possess nuclear weapons, but it must be modest," he explains. "Are we really capable of attacking the Iranian nuclear project? You know, if we do attack, I am not sure it will scuttle the project, or even delay it. These declarations are a terrible mistake, and very unnecessary. Even if someone thinks that, he certainly must not say so.

"I doubt we will be attacked," Sheetrit adds. "Every country will fully understand the consequences of such an attack. Moreover, Israel has excellent anti-missile defense systems. They will fire a missile? Let them. Maybe it will blow up on its way here? Maybe they will miss? To attack Iran is a gamble Israel must not take."

Many senior army figures share his opinion, he says. But they are not permitted to air their views. He, on the other hand, can speak out, and it is him who is caught up in the midst of a difficult and frustrating contest in which, it seems, anything goes and everything is allowed.

Kadishai's opinion

There are hardly any authentic, remaining supporters of Herut (the precursor of the Likud), the likes of Yehiel Kadishai, who was Menachem Begin's aide and bureau chief. Maybe only Ze'ev Binyamin "Benny" Begin and Uzi Landau can match him in this regard. Kadishai was very surprised when this week, he received a visit by Eli Livni, the brother of the prime ministerial candidate, another former Herutnik who crossed the lines.

Eli Livni is now a member of the Likud, after having been in Kadima. (Who knows where he will end up if sister wins the primary?) Kadishai, though, had not seen him since he was a boy of 15 - the son of Eitan Livni, the operations officer of the pre-state underground Irgun. According to Kadishai, Livni wanted to glean his opinion on his sister, about her fitness for the job and about the situation in general. Kadishai will not reveal what he told Eli Livni, but one can guess: Tzipi's volte-face - her support for the 2005 Gaza disengagement and for the two-state solution, including in Jerusalem - probably left Kadishai thinking that a switch had been flicked in her head.

Livni confirms that he visited Kadishai, after not having seen him for more than 30 years. He confirms that Kadishai sent "a few important messages" to his sister through him.

"It looks as though I came to ask for support, but that is not why I went. I know that Yehiel's views are far from those Tzipi espouses today." Eli Livni says he just wanted to debate with a smart, experienced person. His sister, the candidate, asserts that she did not know about the meeting, either beforehand or afterward, and that in any case she would not have sent her brother to see Kadishai.