Annapolis and the Coalition / Should They Stay or Go?

In the tumult of the cameras snapping photographs, one picture caught President Bush sitting with Condoleezza Rice and Ehud Barak. Bush and Barak are sharing a joke. This is the same Barak who has committed "to end the partnership with Olmert" when the complete Winograd report on last year's Lebanon war comes out in a few weeks. Such a move will end the negotiations with the Palestinians, and early elections will see the right come to power, the polls say.

After yesterday, it's hard to imagine Barak fulfilling his promise. It's hard to imagine him acting against his constituency, who support Ehud Olmert and the peace process, especially after they heard the prime minister make a speech that even Shimon Peres would be proud of, a speech worthy of "the head of the peace camp." It's hard to imagine Barak clashing with the U.S. administration, which may be a lame duck, but you never know. It's also hard to imagine him standing up against the majority of his party colleagues. Barak's dilemma since he became defense minister six months ago about what he will do after Winograd got more difficult at Annapolis.

Not only is Barak tied to the government today more than he was before Annapolis, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who called on Olmert to resign after the interim Winograd report, will find it difficult to challenge him again, even if the complete report is tough on him. Her appointment as head of the negotiating team is a crafty political move by Olmert. As long as negotiations continue, Livni must march alongside Olmert on a twisting path that will surely throw up many more obstacles, both security- and political-related.

Israeli politicians' suspicious minds wondered yesterday whether Olmert would invite Barak to join him, just so he could tie him down. The same minds asked: Does Barak not want to go with Olmert precisely for the same reason: binding himself to the government?

Olmert will return home tomorrow to his familiar troubles. The day he lands the police will decide whether to close the case on Bank Leumi or recommend that the prime minister be indicted. The mood at the police suggests that they are leaning toward closing the case.

In four to six weeks, the Winograd report is due. Then, Olmert will have to maneuver between the negotiations with the Palestinians and the threats from his coalition partners - Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman and Shas' Eli Yishai. Just as it's hard to imagine Barak leaving the government and bringing down the coalition, it's hard to imagine Lieberman staying as long as negotiations are at full steam and take place under barrages of Qassam rockets.