Analysis / The Lesser Evil

For three years, Matan Vilnai darted from branch to branch. Day and night, weekend and weekday, summer and winter. There isn't a party branch he didn't visit a number of times. No member, no deal maker, no activist he didn't meet. He painted a bull's-eye on the party leadership and took aim with a tenacity and industry that left his colleagues green with envy.

At the beginning, he appeared a promising candidate. Polls placed him high. But then Ehud Barak joined the race, taking a bite out of Vilnai's natural base of support: kibbutz members.

Then along came Amir Peretz with his massive voter registration drive. Vilnai lost momentum and fell behind. His message got lost. His 15 minutes of fame had come and gone.

Last night, a moment before disgrace, he did the right thing, and joined forces with Shimon Peres. For three years he has rejected Peres in no uncertain terms - for his age, for politicking to stay in government, for everything. And yesterday, in exchange for a promise so hollow it's almost comic - defense minister in a Peres government - Vilnai became a Peres supporter.

That's politics: choices between lesser evils.

Vilnai opted for the less bad and more logical choice. Had he run, he would have come in third, maybe even fourth, place, and possibly crowned Amir Peretz party leader. He wouldn't have forgiven himself for that, and worse, his supporters wouldn't have forgiven him either.

The Peres vs. Peretz call was a no brainer for Vilnai. Peres is his default, as well as for all the Labor ministers except Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who also gains from Vilnai's withdrawal - now he can't come in fourth.

Peres made a great deal last night. He promised things he will never have to deliver, like the defense portfolio, like long-term partnership, like party reform and got a significant boost.

Peres' declaration that Vilnai will be his "senior partner" is empty and no one knows that better than Vilnai. But he needed something, and Peres gave him that something.

Activists at the Peretz campaign headquarters complained yesterday that all is fair in love and in blocking their candidate. Peretz is shrewd though. He figured something like this would happen to him at the last moment. He knew that even if he were elected party chair, he wouldn't get a moment of grace, only contempt, scorn and methodical sabotage.

Senior Labor leaders are scared to death of Peretz, scared he would scare off Shinui voters, Labor's only potential voter pool, rendering it a niche party.

Vilnai gives Peres the numbers he needs for victory.

That is good news for Peres, but no less so, for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon is bringing three Likud ministerial appointments to the Knesset for a vote today, insisting on doing so as a single vote, for which he may not have a majority. If he fails, he may split the appointments, and only propose the permanent position in the Finance Ministry for Ehud Olmert, for whom Sharon has a solid majority.

With Peres as Labor leader, Olmert ensconced at the treasury, and the new rules of the game in the Likud under the Saar-Eitan compromise, Sharon may yet finish his term of office and agree with his friend and colleague Shimon on another term together.

If Israeli politics today have a long-term partnership, it is between Sharon and Peres, not Peres and Vilnai.