Hand in Hand We Stand - for Now

During the past few weeks, relations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have soured. The corridors of power are ripe with speculation and rumors about Barak's intentions. Yet, at least for the time being, it looks like business as usual.

Anyone who has listened to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's people talking about Defense Minister Ehud Barak during the past two or three weeks might get confused and think they are referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The level of suspicion is the same, as is the fear. One of Olmert's advisors even phrases the relationship between the prime and defense ministers in terms that appear in intelligence documents about the Syrian president: A "miscalculation" (that's miskalkulatzia in Hebrew) of the antagonist's intentions could lead to a conflagration, even though at the moment neither side has an interest in starting brushfires.

This phenomenon has been predominant mainly during the past few weeks and it is difficult to know what caused it, who started it and who is to blame. One thing is clear: There is quite a lot of bad blood between Barak and Olmert, who were good friends until not long ago. Each one is accusing the other of not honoring the partnership, of seeking conflict and of harboring hidden intentions. Olmert's advisors are convinced that Barak is holding secret talks with opposition leader Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu about the date of the elections; Barak's advisors are convinced that someone in Olmert's circles is pressing the prime minister to dwarf Barak, to defeat him, to wrestle him down. This effort has manifested itself in several ways: sarcastic cracks by Olmert aimed at Barak, small instances of his ignoring matters of importance to Barak. At least this is what cabinet ministers from the Labor Party are saying.

Olmert's people, of course, are witnessing the exact reverse: They are seeing subversive tendencies in Barak, a lack of willingness to cooperate and too much independence. All of this is happening on a low burner, while maintaining reciprocal irony. At one of the government meetings there was a discussion of the High Court of Justice's order to allocate several hundred million shekels to beef up the structural reinforcements protecting civilian buildings against rockets. "Maybe we should ask for a postponement for five years," suggested one of the ministers. "That's already the next term," Barak muttered quietly to someone. Olmert heard the remark and pounced: "Don't be optimistic," he told Barak. "That's going to be the beginning of my third term."

"We don't know what Barak is planning, what he is aiming for or what his intentions are," said one of Olmert's associates. "We don't have reliable information. His ministers are reassuring us that he isn't going to quit in the near future. But unlike the way things were in [former Labor Party chairman and defense minister MK Amir] Peretz's days, this time we are not convinced that they can lead him in the direction they desire. Next to him, they are dwarves. Until we know where he is heading, we will not take action. The question is when we will know and whether it won't be too late by then."

It is hard to believe, but Olmert misses Amir Peretz. Why not, in fact? If we hark back to the days of the Labor Party primary, the only candidate who said he would not resign in just about any situation was Peretz. It was he who promised Olmert endless stability. But Peretz is history, and now that Barak and his ministers last week voted against the prime minister's proposal to adopt the Brodet Committee's report on the defense budget, a sense of panic appears to surround Olmert. Officials at the Prime Minister's Bureau wondered whether this vote signals what can be expected when the annual budget comes up for vote. Will Barak decide that he won't wait, as he had promised, for the Winograd Committee final report but will instead pull out of the government in the coming months, ostensibly because of the budget?

"We don't understand his reasoning," say the prime minister's people. "Is he so eager to be defense minister in Netanyahu's government? Isn't it preferable to be Olmert's defense minister, with a center-left coalition of 70 Knesset members? Who can promise a coalition like this in the next Knesset? Where does he have another chance to be a partner in a significant diplomatic process - with Bibi [Netanyahu], who will be a prisoner of the right, or with Olmert?"

Well, they should rest assured. Barak is not resigning from the government. While he intends to fight a battle of titans on the budget, resignation is not in the cards. He is convinced that he needs a few additional months of work at the Defense Ministry to rehabilitate his public standing. And anyway, he thinks that resigning over the budget is a political and electoral mistake: At the meetings of "our ministers," he occasionally slaps Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin Ben-Eliezer on the shoulder and says to him: "Our big mistake was that we budget." And he is definitely sticking to his election commitment, which was ratified by his party's central committee: When the final Winograd Committee report is submitted, Labor will resign from the government.

Until then, Labor Party ministers are promising that Barak is prepared for full partnership. He will go hand in hand with Olmert to the diplomatic process, he will support him and lend him a shoulder. And if in the autumn a serious, genuine process gets underway, then his resignation is not an automatic thing. What Barak is asking for is a genuine partnership: that Olmert will not wrestle the defense minister down in a vote on a security issue, the way he did this week. This isn't the way a prime minister behaves toward a defense minister in matters concerning his ministry.

Ehud and Tzipi are a-okay

About once a week, usually at the Knesset, Barak emerges from his bureau on the government floor, makes a left turn, walks a few steps and enters Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's bureau. Sometimes, she is the one making her way to the defense minister's office. Ever since he joined the government, about six weeks ago, Barak has been making a point of meeting with Livni every week. The unusual feature of these meetings is that they are held one on one, just the two of them, at Barak's request.

As far as back anyone can remember, working meetings between defense and foreign ministers have always included many participants - three or four on each side: a diplomatic advisor, a director general, a military secretary, a headquarters chief. Not so with Barak. According to senior Labor Party sources, political matters are part of the discussions at these meetings, otherwise there would be no reason to prevent the participation of advisors. Barak, they are saying in the Labor Party, is looking for channels into Kadima. The informal relationship with Livni is important to him. The same is true for his strengthening of relations with an old buddy of his, Deputy Prime Minster and Transportation and Road Safety Minister Shaul Mofaz.

It is not unlikely that Barak and Livni might one day find themselves in the same party, a new center party that may or may not rise from the ruins of Kadima. However, they could find themselves running against each other for the prime ministership if Olmert is out of the picture. They have common foes: Olmert, who is alienating himself from both of them, and Minister Without Portfolio Haim Ramon, who is becoming a significant foreign policy player, to Livni's displeasure. There is no stronger glue for holding politicians together than a common foe.

The prevailing assumption on the political scene is that Barak aspires to unite Labor and Kadima, with him at the helm, before the next elections. However, internal opinion polls, which are being held at an increasing pace in all kinds of parties of late, have indicated that such a merge will not necessarily benefit the center-left bloc - instead, it will take Knesset seats away from it. From the perspective of the "bloc," the ideal situation is this: Livni at the head of Kadima (20 to 25 Knesset seats, according to the surveys) and Barak at the head of Labor, with a similar number of seats. All this is, of course, theoretical; Livni is very popular among the public but she has never run or been at the center of an election campaign; she has been neither singed nor scorched in the hardest campaign of all, the race for prime minister. Maybe this is another topic of conversation between her and Barak.

'The persecuted' at the Supreme Court

A cold and haughty tranquillity enveloped the third floor of the Supreme Court on the first day of August. The retired justices, who have been separated from their work of judging and sent to honorable exile because of their age, are at a safe distance from their sitting colleagues. The have-beens roam through the winding, wood-paneled corridors in casual dress: Yitzhak Zamir in khaki pants and a short-sleeved white shirt; Aharon Barak in khaki pants and a blue polo shirt. Their facial expressions are concerned. Nowadays, a screen-writer, who would like to create a series on Supreme Court justices, would no doubt call it "The Persecuted" and it would resemble "Aeon Flux" and "Prison Break." In "Aeon Flux" the survivors from the aircraft grapple with wild animals and monsters that ambush them in the forest, while in "Prison Break" the escaped prisoners fight murderous and corrupt government officials. In "The Persecuted," the monster would have a human face and an academic title and an Israel Prize on the shelf: Justice Minister Daniel Friedman. He is driving the judges crazy with his dreamy expression and the series of explosive charges in the shape of "reforms," regulations and strange and various proposed laws he has been detonating around the clock under the foundations of their abode.

"I never dreamed that the day would come," says retired justice Dalia Dorner, "when a justice minister would say and do things that are intended to destroy the Supreme Court. The justice minister is responsible for the loss of respect for the courts. Through him, the government is trying to take control of the court. There have been prime ministers in the past who did not like the court - [Yitzhak] Rabin, [Yitzhak] Shamir - but none of them ever dared to hurt this institution. Today everything is permissible. I have heard rumors that Olmert is considering to send an application to the High Court of Justice to request that the Winograd Committee not issue personal conclusions against him before it sends him a warning letter. If this type of situation continues, he will not have anyone to turn to anymore. There will not be a High Court of Justice, there won't be anything."

On Tuesday Dorner gave an interview to the morning show of Army Radio and fiercely attacked the attempts to undermine the court's status. The day after her interview Dan Meridor was interviewed on the same station. Dorner denies that this is part of a campaign called at the behest of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch. Beinisch did not contact her nor did she ask her to be interviewed.

Friedman's talk about his concern for the independence of the system, she says, reminds her of George Orwell's "Newspeak": The lie is truth.

For me, says Dorner, "Friedman is a book on the shelf, no more than that. He has written books about civil law. He is considered an expert in the field but I have not had recourse to him. Before his appointment I heard that he was writing articles inciting against the court. I did not read them. I did not want to get annoyed. I don't know what his motives are for destroying the system and its independence - and I do not want to get into personal gossip. As far as I am concerned, he is not at all a topic of conversation."

Trial run

Benjamin Netanyahu has run quite a lot of "campaigns" in his day. Some of them were model campaigns - in 1996 against Shimon Peres, now president; some of them were failures - in 2002, against former prime minister Ariel Sharon. In none of them did he chalk up a record for amateurism resembling what happened this week in his campaign for chairmanship of the Likud, which he is conducting again Moshe Feiglin, a man of the extreme right, and Likud wheeler-dealer Danny Dannon.

About 10 days ago dozens of buses in all major cities were decked with Netanyahu's election posters, with the heading: "Israel Chooses to Succeed," on the side of which appears a picture of the leader, with silvery hair. Only one small thing is missing, or more precisely - two things: the name of the leader and the context: what is being chosen, who is choosing, why they are choosing. To the best of anyone's knowledge, this is the first time any politician has ever run a campaign (in this case for the chairmanship of the Likud, on August 14) without including his name and without detailing what the event in question is.

This trick is in fact commonly used when marketing a new product, introduced for the first time; it is called a "teaser." In the first phase, the advertisement holds something partial and intriguing, while in the second phase the mystery is solved for the consumer. This is not the case when it comes to Netanyahu's campaign. Desperate, Netanyahu's people looked at the buses speeding past them, plastered with posters that looked like parodies of themselves. They waited a week, removed the posters from the sides of the buses, sent them back to the advertising firm that produced them, Merhav Shaked, and in the middle of the week new billboards appeared, the way they should be: the inscription "Israel Chooses to Succeed," beside it the explicit and heretofore ineffable name "Netanyahu" and along the bottom: "Voting in the Likud on 14.8." Really brilliant simplicity. How come no one thought of that sooner?

Netanyahu's bureau told Haaretz, with ironic dryness: "We did a trial run, as is common practice in campaigns."