Cry, the Beleaguered Country

Nowadays, when new governments can be formed without elections, anything can happen. Cry, the beleaguered country.

Amir Peretz looks at his public image in the mirror and gets a shock. They're treating him like a blithering idiot. Ehud Olmert looks at his prime ministerial image in the mirror and what does he see? A leader who has lost the people's trust. Both of them look at the horizon and what do they see? The Winograd Committee deciding their fate.The question they ask themselves is not who will come out looking better, but who will come out looking a little less bad. Will it be a defense minister who has never read a battle map in his life, or a prime minister who appointed a rookie defense minister to boost his own interests?

As State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss sharpens his claws for the upcoming horror show at the Knesset, a cockfight breaks out between the prime minister and his defense minister. Peretz, who knows his days in the defense ministry are numbered, starts talking about a subject he knows; the unpaid salaries of local government workers.

You're straying from the main topic, snarls Olmert. To which Peretz replies: You're not the dictator around here and you won't shut me up. Olmert, flushed with anger, raises his voice: Today we?ll be hearing briefings. Peretz: You can't tell us what to talk about. What is this? A dictatorship?

It was pretty wild in there, the ministers reported, clearly taken aback.

The prime minister presides over a government of equals, says one former minister. He's not the lord and master. There is no justification for muzzling a minister who has something to say. Even the most authoritative prime ministers in Israeli history didn?t shut their ministers up. In Golda Meir's day, and certainly in that of Menachem Begin, everyone got the floor. Meetings could last up to 20 hours. 'Not you' wasn't in the lexicon. Since when does the prime minister decide that a cabinet meeting is 'only for briefings'?

The reason for this spat is that emotionally, Olmert and Peretz are both strained to their limits. Their political future hangs by a thread. Even worse, they are sitting on the razor's edge, to use the title of a novel by Somerset Maugham. Pardon the imagery, but one slip and they could lose their political manhood.

Those close to the prime minister have brushed the incident off as unimportant. A trivial affair, they called it. Peretz's associates have also downplayed its significance. 'Olmert was grumpy that day and Peretz has a short fuse. They've been through plenty worse.' Like the time Olmert tried to get rid of Peretz on the day Dan Halutz resigned as chief of staff.

In practice, they are both waiting, not very happily, for the Winograd report. The fact that Peretz was only defense minister for nine months before the war broke out will not necessarily save him from ministerial responsibility.As prime minister, Olmert is in a worse position. First, because he made Peretz defense minister instead of finance minister; and second, because he approved a war that violated the two ironclad principles championed by David Ben-Gurion that have been the guiding light for the Israel Defense Forces all these years: 1?) Wars should be fought on enemy territory; and 2?) Wars should be ended as quickly as possible.

What happened, with regard to both these rules, was just the opposite: Hezbollah moved the war to our territory by firing hundreds of rockets at civilian centers in Israel for 33 straight days. And instead of limiting itself to a forceful but compact reprisal operation, the IDF prolonged the fighting. Not to mention the embarrassing fact that our kidnapped soldiers have yet to be returned home.

After the Winograd report is released, it is doubtful Olmert will be able to continue being prime minister; especially if the state comptroller adds into the picture all the assorted suspicions against the prime minister in a variety of scandals. Both Olmert and Peretz are sweeping the floor with their poll rankings; and that's before the investigating committee and comptroller have finished their work.

The Winograd Committee could trigger the sort of upheaval in which everything is possible. Kadima could fizzle out, sending Labor party members back to Labor and Likudniks back to Likud, and that could end up bringing Benjamin Netanyahu back to power.

Nowadays, when new governments can be formed without elections, anything can happen. Maybe Olmert will land on his feet, and maybe he won't. In any case, we may be seeing Kadima and Labor join forces, with Tzipi Livni at the top and Ami Ayalon or Ehud Barak as defense minister.With political chaos at the doorstep, who knows what will happen? Maybe Shimon Peres will drop the idea of being president and rush to the country's rescue, at 84, as the next prime minister of Israel? Cry, the beleaguered country.