Analysis / The Fist Takes on the Maneuvering

"We obliterated him," said Haim Ramon as he came off the busy stage at Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv, a smile splashed across his face. "We smashed the thug," he added.

"We obliterated him," said Haim Ramon as he came off the busy stage at Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv, a smile splashed across his face. "We smashed the thug," he added.

Behind him, in a tight circle of aides and bodyguards, Ehud Barak was making a slow exit from the hall. "Ehud, what do you have to say?" the press shouted after him.

Barak, breathing heavily, pale, angry, put on his old familiar smile and said, "The age of the wheeler-dealers is over," and winked.

The Labor Party last night provided its members and the entire public a pitiful, crazed show of force that even Uzi Cohen, the Likud deputy mayor of Ra'anana who is mocked so effectively in the satire show "Eretz Nehederet," would have been uncomfortable had he attended.

For the sake of a holy cause - blocking Barak - the convention's organizers were prepared to even risk lives. They deliberately hired a small hall, with 900 seats, when they knew that the central committee has twice as many members. The overcrowding was intolerable. Outside, several hundred frustrated central committee members were embittered by the doors closed to them. From the start, it was obvious there would not be a secret ballot. It was all a well-planned exercise meant to block Barak: from the general confusion, to the lack of clarity over the voting procedure, to the proposal by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to hold the vote at the convention which might convene in two or three weeks. Maybe at the Exhibition Grounds, or Tzavta or Ilan's Cafe.

The proposal not to vote was put together at a meeting yesterday afternoon in Shimon Peres' office with Ramon, Ben-Eliezer, Dalia Itzik, Ephraim Sneh and Yitzhak Herzog.

Peres, Ramon, Ben-Eliezer and most of the party's senior members needed the postponement to go ahead with negotiations for a national unity government. The talks have not yet begun, but if you believe Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, they are very close.

If by the time of the slated convention to vote on the date for primaries Labor is securely ensconced in the Sharon government, the primaries that Barak wanted so much will be postponed. If, on the other hand, negotiations for a unity government fail, nothing will stop the primaries from taking place sooner than later. The expected date now is March 2005, more or less, just as Barak and Matan Vilnai want.

The internal Labor deadline that was postponed for two weeks is Sharon's last chance to do what he should have done months ago: go to his own party and give it the choice between unity or elections.

Sharon had plenty of chances to do so and missed them all. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Shinui will be out of the government this week, and Sharon will be left with 40 MKs in the coalition - all from his Likud, and he can't even be 100 percent sure about all of them. He knows that his most loyal ally, who has waited for six months by fax and phone under Sharon's window and at his door, is Peres.

The big question, as always, is whether Sharon will be able to get a Likud-Labor-United Torah Judaism coalition through his own party. It's doubtful the Likud will be ready for that, but if Sharon doesn't try, he'll never know. Shimon, in any case, once again delivered the goods, this time at Beit Hahayal last night. Now it's all up to Sharon.

Peres, by the way, did not open his mouth yesterday. He sat on the stage in the flattering black turtleneck that he has taken to wearing lately. He kept a poker face, expressionless, as if everything that was taking place around him had nothing to do with him. He let the boys, the soldiers, play before him according to a script prepared in advance.

It wasn't how Barak of 2004 planned his first appearance as the comeback kid in the party. He hoped to sweep the central committee off its

feet with a strident opposition speech of the kind that has not been heard in that forum for some time. When he figured out that the trick was on him, he went back to his days in the Sayeret, and Moshe Shahal, a polished top lawyer, who for a generation provided Peres with the legal, constitutional and procedural underpinnings for whatever Peres needed, was Barak's target.

Barak's hoarse shouting as he grabbed the microphone away from Shahal, crying, "vote only for a secret ballot, everything else will be an attempt to railroad the party," bordered on loss of control. What worked for Sharon in the mid-1980s when he grabbed the microphone at a Likud Central Committee meeting and shouted, "Who is in favor of eradicating terror?" doesn't work any more.

There were some who said last night that everything was planned in advance, that Barak wanted to show the members what strong, courageous, forceful leadership looked like. On the other hand, his people said the mike grab was a "spontaneous" act and showed Barak's humanity. He's not the cold, impassive and alienating Barak, but Barak the man, with hot blood.

It was strange last night to see Barak as leader of a minority in the party, fighting the apparatus put together by Peres and Ramon. Barak found out that 2004 is not 1997, when he conquered the party leadership with ease, with roses. Now he understands that to retake the wheel, he will have to come with tanks. Two days ago, on Channel 10, he spoke about the need for "a politics of the fist." What happened last night in Beit Hahayal was exactly that: politics with a fist against the politics of maneuvering.