Days of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Labor has thrown all its political balls into the air again. Will Ayalon and Peretz join forces? Will Barak go it alone? And what about the recent thaw in relations between Olmert and Peretz? Factoring in the upcoming presidential election, it is clear that the time of political wheeling and dealing is anything but over

The night after the Labor Party primary, Ehud Barak got a phone call from one of his major supporters, who also happened to be a personal friend. If you go with Amir Peretz, the friend said, I won't vote for you.

On Barak's desk right then were the results of a fresh poll his brother Avinoam Brug had carried out for him. The findings were undeniable: A deal between Barak and Peretz would cause some Barak voters to stay home, spur others to desert to Ayalon and put off voters who had supported Pines-Paz and Yatom in round one. And in communities in the hinterlands, where Peretz could be of help, Barak had pretty good results, his personal wealth notwithstanding. So, all in all, he didn't have to agonize too much about whether to form an alliance with Peretz.

Deep down, he also knew that Peretz harbors such deep feelings of hostility toward him that he would never join forces with him. Barak decided to forgo the humiliation of a ritual pilgrimage to the born-again social leader. He'd been through the experience after the last Labor primary, in 2005, and that was enough for him. He decided to "take the high road": no deals, no dubious tit for tat. If the poll was wrong and he was in fact condemning himself to electoral death, at least he would go down with his head held high.

In the Labor Party these days, everyone wants to take the moral high ground. Thus, at the conclusion of their meeting a couple of days ago, Ayalon and Peretz stated they had conducted "a principled discussion." Presumably, they spent the time poring together over the writings of Berl Katznelson. Ayalon has to be more principled than ever now, after Ayala Hasson reported on Channel 1 that he held contacts with Peretz about combining forces even before the polls for the primaries were opened. This is the same Ayalon who at the start of the race proposed to all other candidates that they run under a single slogan, "Anyone but Peretz." Next week he'll embrace Peretz and they'll both say, "Anyone but Barak." Peretz knew what he was talking about when he called the Ayalon forces "a camp of opportunists."

Peretz has also rediscovered his principles - in the form of "the social camp." Where was the social camp during the past year? In Shelly Yachimovich's Knesset office. That's where it started and that's where it ended. But after the loss this week, and the fallback to third place, Peretz had to cling to something to keep from drowning. As ever, the "social camp" is a life raft, a last refuge.

And it was Peretz's own supporters who found such changes of heart most amusing. After all, they are very familiar with their client and with his somewhat flimsy commitment to the social-democratic issue. A few weeks before the Labor Party primaries, several leading left-wing intellectuals got together to discuss whom to support this time. After much hesitation and having closely considered all the candidates, they decided on Peretz. But only by default. One of them put it this way: "We have a suit called social democracy. We have to hang it so it doesn't get wrinkled and dirty. Of the five candidates, Peretz still seems like the most fitting hanger upon which to hang this suit."

And so that meeting spawned "the hanger theory," inspired by Amir Peretz.

Picking at old wounds

"I am taking a leave from my position as party chairman," Peretz told his people this week, making it quite clear to them that he means to return. Perhaps even in the next set of the primaries, which, according to the party's constitution, are supposed to be held ahead of elections for the Knesset. Once he reboots his wrecked political career, he'll try to effect a hostile takeover of the Ayalon camp, and ride it all the way to the premiership.

But before that he wants to pick a bit at his own wounds, at the kibbutzim, for instance: He would like to march from one kibbutz dining hall to another and find out why they don't vote for him. Not that he doesn't already know the answer: He's just not one of them. But he wants to hear it from them, directly. He wants them to tell him straight to his face why they treat him like an outcast. Why Barak and Ayalon received thousands of votes from the kibbutzim and he got only 500.

During the past weeks, there has been a thaw in the relations between Peretz and Olmert. The Labor Party ministers had to have noticed it; at government and cabinet meetings Olmert frequently complimented Peretz for the functioning of the defense establishment, and at every meeting he reminded the other ministers of the defense minister's home residence "at the front." Last week, on one of the days when Qassams were falling, Olmert visited Peretz's home in Sderot, played a few tunes on the piano and hung out with Peretz's children, Ohad and Shani, and with his wife, Ahlama.

At first Peretz's colleagues thought this was Olmert's way of saying good-bye. Then they realized that there was something deeper at play here. At the height of the Labor election campaign, it dawned on Olmert that the only candidate who supports Labor remaining in the government is Peretz. Someone, perhaps Haim Ramon - fearing the possibility that Barak would be elected and take over the Defense Ministry - advised Olmert not to put all his eggs in Barak's basket, and to start nurturing the connection with Peretz anew. This tactic is, of course, based on the assumption that Peretz will be the one to soften Ayalon's current insistence that he would never be part of an Olmert government. This strategy paid off for Olmert. If Ayalon is elected on June 12, he'll somehow find the ladder needed to allow him to climb into the government. Obviously, the party's central committee will force him to enter it, and he won't mind being forced. Peretz, say some in the party, could well receive Peres' portfolio if the latter is elected president the next day.

It sounds like a logical work arrangement: Ayalon as defense minister and Peretz as minister for development of the Negev and the Galilee. But it still leaves the problem of Avishay Braverman: Which portfolio will he get and which minister will have to step aside to make room for him? In all likelihood it will be one of the leaders of the Barak camp - Simhon, Ben-Eliezer or Herzog.

But Ayalon won't be able to dismiss a minister just like that. He'll need the support of the party central committee, and the committee is not his. It's made up of friends of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon, that is, Barak supporters, and they intend to fight tooth and nail if Ayalon chooses to swing the ax over either of them. If Barak is elected party chair, he plans to bring Ayalon into the government. Then, too, one of the ministers will have to go. In that case, Yuli Tamir or Raleb Majadele, Peretz's people, will find their jobs on the line. However it turns out, some interesting times are ahead for Labor after the primaries. Days of blood, sweat and tears.

"There is no joy in these primaries, apart from gloating at others' misfortune," is how one Labor member aptly described it this week. "Gloating at the sight of Ophir Pines-Paz shrinking back to his natural size. Gloating about the look that will be on Fuad [Ben-Eliezer], Buzhi (Herzog) and Simhon's faces if Ayalon wins. Gloating about the look on Avishay Braverman's face if Barak wins. Just for these little pleasures, it's all worth it."

Saving Private Shimon

So Shimon Peres comes out of a visit with the King of Thailand, according to the joke, and he goes to the local market and buys some elegant fabric. He takes it to a Thai tailor and asks him to make him a suit from it. The tailor looks at the fabric and says to him: I'm sorry - It's only enough for a pair of pants, if that.

The next day he flies to London. He takes the fabric from Thailand to a top tailor. It's enough for a sleeve at most, the tailor tells him.

That evening he's in Paris and goes to see another tailor. Maybe I'll be able to sew you a sock, the tailor says. Disappointed, Peres returns to Israel. On his way to party headquarters, he stops by his usual tailor on Lilienblum Street. Can you do something with this fabric, Peres asks. I'll make you two suits, says the tailor. And an extra pair of pants.

Stupefied, Peres asks: How is it that abroad the fabric is hardly enough for anything while here you can sew me half a wardrobe out of it? That's easy, replies the tailor, laughing. Abroad, you're a giant.

It was a poignant moment two days ago at the Kadima faction meeting. Peres, who will turn 84 in another two months, a man who is truly a giant of his generation, read from a carefully worded written statement. How much agonizing must have preceded it, how much soul-searching and nervous butterflies in the stomach.

"Perhaps this will be my final contribution," Peres said, referring to a seven-year presidential term. "Perhaps" - the word was not inserted casually; he wasn't closing off any options. This way, at age 91, when he leaves the presidential residence and is ready for another position, another candidacy, no one can come and say: But hold on, you said this would be your final contribution!

No, Peres would respond - I said "perhaps."

Eleven days from now, he'll face the music again. This time, without the arrogance that characterized him in the presidential race against Moshe Katsav. Another defeat would be simply inconceivable. Yet at the same time, it would be accepted as a decree of fate.

In the first round, he'll compete against Ruby Rivlin and Colette Avital. Barring a major surprise, the second round will apparently be between Peres and Rivlin. The race between the two is wide open, in the sense that no one can genuinely predict the outcome. When you put 120 MKs behind a curtain, God only knows what goes on there. In recent weeks, as Peres resolved to throw his hat in the ring, he recruited an army of advisers: Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon; former MK Effi Oshaya; advertising moguls Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad; former MK Rafi Elul; Ovad Yehezkel, the adviser to the prime minister; and Peres' own longtime spokesman, Yoram Dori. All were drafted for the big mission: Saving Private Shimon.

Meanwhile, Rivlin is working alone. A lone man running for the presidency. Behind him is only his shadow. While Olmert is doing his utmost for Peres, at Rivlin's behest, Netanyahu is not involved. Rivlin is not interested in that kind of help. He wants to come across as a candidate above the party fray. But Olmert and his advisers are using Netanyahu to prod Rivlin fans in Kadima to vote for Peres. "Remember what Katsav's election did to Sharon, who was head of the opposition then," Olmert told the Kadima MKs this week. Netanyahu is the whip, the scarecrow. Peres is the "antibibiotica," as David Levy once said. The truth is that most of the MKs won't be thinking about Olmert or Bibi when they vote on June 13. The considerations will be much pettier, sometimes ludicrously so: who returned a phone call, who smiled at one in the cafeteria, who called to say Happy Birthday and who will give up a portfolio if elected.