Cockfights in the Capital

Between Lindenstrauss and Winograd, and Netanyahu and Barak, Olmert squeaked through one more week.

The truth is, we're fed up. Fed up with the perennial fights between State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. They are like two boys fighting over who can insult the other more. One curses, the other swears. The first one teases and the second brings in the parents. Soon they'll start spitting at each other and wrestling in the mud.

As if residents of the north did not suffer enough in the war, due to both Hezbollah and the government's failures, now they have to suffer this lowbrow headline-grabbing. Olmert could have displayed some graciousness, or at least maturity, and said, "I appreciate the work the comptroller put into examining the home front and commit to fixing the flaws. As for the comptroller's style, that's his issue." Instead, he chose to attack Lindenstrauss with a sharp tongue and unsheathed claws. Olmert is incapable of restraint when it comes to Lindenstrauss, just as Lindenstrauss cannot contain himself when it comes to Olmert.

Instead of being satisfied with the professional, thorough and comprehensive report his team prepared, Lindenstrauss felt compelled to issue a press release filled with gems like "serious failure." It's no wonder that when he delivered the report to Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik Wednesday afternoon, he told her: "I have the pleasure of submitting to you the comptroller's report on the home front." And indeed, a smile of pure pleasure crossed his lips.

The report reached the Prime Minister's Office a few days earlier. Olmert's advisers, including Vice Premier Haim Ramon, sat down and thought about what do. The tactic they chose was simple: Distinguish between the report and the man, treat the critique with serious consideration and demonstrate total contempt for the comptroller. In effect, only the scorn for Lindenstrauss was apparent. Cockfights are fine, but not what a public still haunted by last summer's trauma is looking for now, when it is constantly hearing about the likelihood of another war.

From the outset Olmert's people expected the report to stay in the headlines for two days, until the weekend. But by Wednesday evening, just hours after its release, all three television news broadcasts had already pushed the report off its main headlines. Channel 10 gave preference to a story on spoiled food at Osem, while channels One and 2 opened with the civil marriage initiative of Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, an Olmert loyalist.

Cynics might see that as the work of the PMO. How do you get the home front story out of the headlines? Simple: You ask Friedmann to roll out his proposal two hours before the evening news. Satisfaction guaranteed. Of course, both the PMO and the Justice Ministry deny any such shenanigans. "It wasn't us," an Olmert associate said. "But it's not a bad idea, and it worked well too."

Olmert's battle for survival is being waged on three fronts: He is beefing up Kadima; preparing for a legal battle against the Winograd Committee, in the event it decides to release its final report on the war without permitting him to respond; and accelerating the diplomatic channel vis-a-vis the Palestinians - or perhaps with Syrian. If, as reported in Haaretz yesterday, the release of the full Winograd report is delayed - possibly until next spring - then Olmert will have received a crucial extension. But it is only a deferral. Since the report is not expected to praise Olmert's performance last summer, its release - whenever that may be - will lead to Labor's leaving the coalition and force an early election, presumably at the end of 2008. That's what Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak wants, and it's what Likud Chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu wants. The Knesset will also have to dissolve itself. The more the report's release is delayed, the greater the chances for early elections; the longer the MKs can hold onto their seats, the less it will hurt them to declare the end of their terms.

Dark charms

When the Knesset returns in October from its summer recess, Avigdor Lieberman will have been in the cabinet for a full year. On the personal level, he lacks for nothing. He travels the world with the bombastic title of minister for strategic affairs, reads hair-raising intelligence reports that most ministers don't get to see and he is leaving Netanyahu in the opposition desert. Lieberman's position has changed his vocabulary. Whenever people used to ask how he was doing, he would respond, "Peachy." Today, he tells people, "I'm not hearing any good news." And that's the difference between not being the minister for strategic affairs and being the minister for strategic affairs.

In certain circles, Lieberman is considered an uber-politician: sophisticated, unpredictable, a chess player who thinks five moves ahead. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand his reward for remaining in the coalition, apart from the daily envelope of classified materials delivered by special messenger. Rare is the politician who can defy the dark charms of these envelopes.

From the perspective of his political party, Lieberman is doing poorly. Polls show his joining the cabinet immediately after the war cost Yisrael Beiteinu five or six Knesset seats. All the promises he made before joining the coalition have evaporated into the ether. He promised his voters a state commission of inquiry into the failures of the war, he promised to pass the domestic partnership law and he promised to change the system of government. Lieberman's condition for joining the coalition was a cabinet resolution in support of the partnership law. The cabinet passed it, but it ended there. On Wednesday, before the Knesset recessed for summer, Lieberman submitted his bill calling for a presidential government, to much fanfare. The result was chastening: 57 against and only 16 in favor.

The coalition, of which Lieberman is a key member, has 78 MKs. Nonetheless, only five MKs who are not members of his own party supported the bill. They included Ruhama Avraham (Kadima), his former secretary, and Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima). Such humiliatingly low votes are usually reserved for bills proposed by the Arab parties with the support of Meretz.

It's no wonder, then, that Lieberman was irritable this week. After extending a lifeline to Kadima what he received in return was enough rope to hang himself. Shas, with 12 MKs, passed several laws aimed to benefit the ultra-Orthodox, while Lieberman, with only one fewer MK, got nothing, zero, zilch.

He isn't getting his voters results, but is nevertheless forced to swallow Olmert's gestures to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, from releasing funds to releasing prisoners. The major operation against Hamas in Gaza that Lieberman has been pushing for, meanwhile, is not happening. Lieberman's effect on the cabinet is imperceptible. One can only laugh at the hysteria that gripped the left before Lieberman joined the coalition, but that's the left: hysterical, by definition.

Yes, Lieberman was irritable this week. He has many reasons for quitting the government now: the lack of support for his proposal to change the system of government, his opposition to Israel's gestures to the Palestinians and the lack of a major military operation in Gaza. But to step down now, with no parliamentary achievements, would make him appear ridiculous. And so he grits his teeth and waits. It would be worth the while of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to read this: The angrier Lieberman gets, the more reasons Ahmadinejad has to worry. +