Bar-On for Ramon?

That could be the scenario in the Justice Ministry. But then again, Olmert could surprise us.

Haim Ramon sat in a fashionable cafe last Friday. Occasionally, says a witness, people approached him, men and women alike, shook his hand and patted his back affectionately. "Haimke, we're with you," they told him. Ramon smiled a tired, bitter smile. "Thanks," he said, "but the judges aren't."

In conversations Ramon held with close associates during the days before the court's decision, he described the eyes of the two female judges, Hayuta Kochan and Daniella Shirizli, as "glowering" at him. He had no illusions about them. At best, he thought that he would be convicted by majority opinion, two to one, so that he would have a good basis for an appeal. He didn't dream of an acquittal. Few people managed to penetrate the wall with which Ramon surrounded himself or to talk to him. He sounded to them like a sad, broken man, who couldn't understand how this happened to him. The closer the date of the ruling became, the more pessimistic he became. If I still had hope, he said to someone, it has disappeared after Dorit Beinisch turned the offense of sexual harassment into a crime against humanity.

Ramon was referring to comments by Beinisch, the new president of the Supreme Court, at a convention of the Israel Bar Association in Eilat in early December. With the Ramon trial in the background, one of the female attorneys dared at that time to voice her opinion that the law in such cases is superfluous. Excuse me, that's enough! Beinisch immediately attacked her. "You have no idea what sexual harassment is," she said. "The law has a normative role of great importance." Afterward she delivered a long and resolute speech in favor of the law and against the harassers. In the hall sat dozens of male and female judges, whose advancement in the coming years depends on Beinisch. Ramon's friends saw the speech as an act of "targeted assassination" against him. After her speech, they said, no judge will dare acquit him.

Ramon was not surprised by Beinisch's attack or by similar statements by Attorney General Meni Mazuz. He saw this as another stage in the conspiracy against him, to remove him from the judicial system that he had promised - at the beginning of his term as justice minister last May - to shake up. With the formation of the Kadima government, the "big bang" government, it looked as though politician Ramon had finally, after many attempts and failures, managed to attain self-fulfillment. Justice minister in a center-left government, with the prime minister his good friend - what more could Ramon have asked for himself? He planned to participate in diplomatic negotiations, to leave an unforgettable imprint on the judicial system and to fashion himself as a candidate for prime minister in the post-Olmert era. There was nobody happier than he when former prime minister Ariel Sharon resigned from the Likud and established Kadima. For an entire year Ramon directly and indirectly pressured Sharon, who hesitated and deliberated until the last moment. The splitting up of the Likud was Ramon's life's work.

And now, slightly over a year later, Sharon is in a coma in the hospital and Ramon is ending his political career as a convicted sex offender. That is what the ruling says, but Ramon is not a sex offender. He is an obsessive flirt, hugger, kisser and back-slapper. He still sees himself as a young and attractive guy and, as such, he got involved in that fatal accident with H. in the Prime Minister's Office in Tel Aviv, on the evening of July 12, 2006. He should have made a sincere apology immediately afterward, and if not immediately, then in the confrontation during the police investigation, and if not during the confrontation then at the start of his trial. Had he done so, he might have been saved from conviction. The world war that Ramon and his defense team declared on H., the state prosecution and the police left only one casualty on the battlefield: Ramon himself.

There was not a single mistake that Ramon failed to make during those five months. Like the Israel Defense Forces in the recent Lebanon war, he did not properly identify the battleground; he did not properly define his goals to himself; he became involved in a lethal whirlpool of spin and schemes that brought him sympathy in the media and among quite a few shapers of public opinion, but not among the judges.

What can Ramon do now? He must appeal, although his chances are slim. The judicial ruling is closing in on him from all sides. He won't be returning to the government that was formed in his image. He can leave political life, go into business, make money. He can also remain on the political playing field, in the Knesset, and devote his life to a war against the legal system, by means of laws and other parliamentary procedures. For that he needs energy and tremendous emotional strength. It is very doubtful whether Ramon has that.

Livni is relieved

Ehud Olmert was beside himself on Wednesday. During this entire period he treated Ramon with great humanity. He spoke to him, encouraged him. Ramon was this government's best defense attorney during its first months, until he became silent and disappeared. The return of Ramon to the government was supposed to inject it with some vitality, some of the oxygen that it so badly needs. Had Ramon returned he would have taken care of the reshuffling of government ministries next week. In his absence Olmert has nobody to do that. He will have to take care of it himself, with his dwindling team of assistants.

On Wednesday evening, at a convention in Jerusalem, Olmert turned to Minister Tzipi Livni and told her: "Your days in the Justice Ministry are numbered." A year ago, Livni would have fainted on the spot, but two days ago she breathed a sigh of relief. Recently there have been rumors to the effect that Olmert would take the Foreign Ministry away from her and leave her with the Justice Ministry, but that is not going to happen. Perhaps he would like to do so, but he does not have enough political power to carry out such a brutal move against the most popular minister in his government.

Livni will remain in the Foreign Ministry, and the respectable justice portfolio will be given to someone else. Perhaps to Roni Bar-On, one of the last of Olmert's supporters, and perhaps Olmert will surprise us and appoint someone like Dan Meridor or Uriel Reichman to the job.

At the end of this week Olmert is supposed to conduct consultations at the Prime Minster's Residence regarding the assignment of portfolios. During the past week he barely did so. He was busy with preparations for his testimony yesterday before the Winograd Committee. Olmert knows that his fate will be decided there. If the panel lets him off easily, he will get another, final opportunity to rehabilitate his status and to extricate himself from the morass. If the conclusions regarding him are harsh, his days will be numbered.

Peretz is waiting

Olmert's political weakness is also preventing him from removing Amir Peretz from the Defense Ministry. All Olmert can do is to continue complaining about Peretz, but he's stuck with him until the conclusions of the Winograd Committee are publicized, or until the Labor Party's primaries. Peretz, they are saying in Olmert's bureau, is continuing to behave like the chairman of a labor union. During his last two working meetings with the prime minister, he spoke only about privatizing the Israel Military Industries - that's all that interests him: to prevent privatization and dismissals so that the workers will support him in his contest for the Labor leadership. On other, security-related issues that were discussed during those meetings, claim the prime minister's people, Peretz arrived without any opinions or knowledge.

Ostensibly Ramon's failure to return to the cabinet constitutes a golden opportunity for Peretz to resign from the Defense Ministry, which is an electoral burden, in exchange for a social-economic portfolio like the Interior Ministry (if Bar-On goes over to Justice), or the Social Affairs Ministry, but Peretz insists on remaining where he is. He is waiting for Winograd. His mood has improved during the past two to three weeks: The appointment of the chief of staff, the appointment of an Arab minister and a successful Labor Party registration campaign that his people organized for him have put the color back in his cheeks.

It is not at all clear that Peretz's resignation now, under these circumstances, would be good for Olmert. If Peretz gets up and leaves today - the public is likely to demand the head of the prime minister as well, as the last "domino." If Peretz is not removed, and if no superstar from outside is brought in to take up the justice portfolio, this round, which the entire country has been awaiting with bated breath for weeks, could end with a still small voice, of no interest to the public.