Hanging in the Balance

Next week, three High Court judges will have a chance to send Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann back to academia. If they reject the petition regarding the Winograd Committee, its report may soon be published - and topple the government.

This Tuesday at 9 A.M., the fates of the government of Israel and its prime minister will be in the hands of three members of the High Court of Justice: President Dorit Beinisch and Justices Ayala Procaccia and Edmond Levy. They will discuss two petitions, submitted by the Israel Defense Forces judge advocate general and former MK Avraham Poraz, asking the court to require the Winograd Committee to send letters of caution to politicians and army officers who appeared before it, to allow them to question witnesses, and examine testimony and evidence. In short, to ensure that the work of the committee continues for a long time.

The political implications of the ruling cannot be overstated: If the justices accept the petitioners' demands, committee chair Eliyahu Winograd and some of the other members may resign. Such a threat was leaked from the committee at some point. This would be wonderful news for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. If they do not resign, the release of the full report will certainly be postponed for many months, which would also make Olmert happy. He would receive an extension permitting him to move ahead in the peace process with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and perhaps even enjoy restoration of some of his status among the public.

But if the petitions are rejected, the report may be released as early as October or November. It is expected to foment a huge storm in the political establishment, to shake up Kadima, to revive the rebellion against Olmert, to speed up Labor's resignation from the government, and very likely to lead to early elections.

No one is attributing extraneous interests to the High Court justices, even in jest. They will rule based only on the principles of law and justice. But the temptation before them to finally rid themselves of Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann cannot be overlooked. All they would have to do to send Prof. Friedmann back to the lecture hall and to writing newspaper articles would be to reject the petitions, and thus hasten the release of the report. It must be admitted that this is an extreme, even Hollywoodian, scenario - causing a whole government to fall just to get rid of one justice minister.

But let's return to politics: Ehud Barak said this week he believed elections will be held during 2008. He is not thrilled over leaving the government following the release of the full Winograd report, but he's bounded by the only public pledge he gave - not once, but twice - during his primary campaign: to work to topple Olmert because of the interim Winograd report.

If Barak keeps his word, he will have no other choice (unless extraordinary security conditions prevail, and then - as one senior government official explained simplistically this week - it would be a matter of either elections or war), he would begin to work toward early elections among the Knesset factions. That would be a very problematic move from an ethical point of view: a senior minister, a central coalition partner, negotiating with the Knesset factions over early elections. Olmert would not be able to stand for this. He would be forced to fire Barak so as not to be considered weak by his supporters in Kadima.

Both Barak's and Olmert's bureaus have taken this scenario into consideration. If it were to occur, Olmert would announce a quick primary in Kadima, which he is likely to win, and early elections. He would run again at the head of Kadima, bringing in the 12 to 13 Knesset seats the polls have predicted. Olmert would then be appointed foreign minister in a Barak or a Netanyahu government. What does he get out of it? He would prevent Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni from continuing in her post, no small achievement, and he could begin working on his comeback. Because sooner or later, everybody comes back, don't they?

As for Livni, conventional wisdom in political circles has it that she will not repeat the mistake she made the last time, and will resign from the cabinet if the final Winograd report is severe. She would thus achieve three goals: to rehabilitate her image among the politicians; to force additional ministers like Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz to do the same; and to make Barak and the Labor Party quit the coalition. Livni, says a person who knows her well, knows that in not quitting after the interim Winograd report, she contributed more than anyone else to Olmert's survival. If Livni had resigned in April, Amir Peretz, who was waiting with bated breath for her decision, would have left right after her, and Mofaz and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter would have apparently followed suit. Under those circumstances, Olmert would not have lasted even two more days.

Livni, say sources in Kadima, is working hard on signing up supporters for membership in Kadima ahead of the expected primary. She remembered somewhat late that her rivals, especially Mofaz and Meir Sheetrit, and Olmert, too, have already plowed that field deeply. She has made it her goal to enlist a few thousand supporters in the coming months, but at the moment her people have no more than a few hundred signed membership forms. Livni is very popular with the public, where she is perceived as the almost natural successor to Olmert. But in Kadima she is viewed very differently: Mofaz and Sheetrit do not consider her a serious rival. Each of them is sure he can defeat her easily, and so is Olmert.

The last tango

Anyone who has seen Silvan Shalom recently, and his supporters throughout the country have seen him quite frequently, finds him calm. He has switched gears: His task is no longer to rout Benjamin Netanyahu, at least not in the near future. His task is now to be elected at the top of the Likud list to the next Knesset, so as to force Netanyahu to make him a senior minister, preferably foreign minister. Another task is to obliterate Limor Livnat and Yisrael Katz, who were among those inciting Netanyahu to call for a primary in August. Somebody heard Shalom vow that Livnat would not be in the next Knesset.

If he could, he would take back his remark about what was going on in the Likud party was reminiscent of the Baath regime in Syria. There are quite a few in the Likud who will never forgive him for it. And there are quite a few who would do everything to prove him right, using him as an example, to show that opponents of such regimes have no future. One day, they simply disappear.

This week Shalom met with supporters as he toured Netivot and Ofakim. I do not start wars, he told them. From my point of view, the last elections were not legitimate, but I accept the outcome. My hope now is to shorten the term of this government, and to bring the Likud back to power. Unity, unity! They shouted, calling on him and Netanyahu to come together. "It takes two to tango," they told Shalom. Some things have to come from the party leader, he responded. If he wants to cooperate, let him initiate it. I am not dealing with it.

Shalom's people are said to believe that Netanyahu needs him to move further to the center, to reach groups the Likud chair has no chance of reaching on his own. In any case, despite his great victory over Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon, he is still a leader with problems. True, the polls predict some 28 Knesset seats on the average, as opposed to the 12 Likud has today. But Likud had 40 seats. Let us say they get 16 back. Where are the other 12? If today, with Kadima at a low point, they will not come, when will they? Perhaps, Silvan's people say, he is the one to get them back.

Shalom reassures activists who are worried about his survival because of the rivalry with Netanyahu. The rivalries between Yitzhak Shamir and David Levy, between Levy and Netanyahu, between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were greater - and in the end everybody worked together, even as No. 1 and No. 2. Those who want to see this as a hint of Shalom's willingness to have the No. 2 spot in the Likud list reserved for him, make this assumption on their own responsibility. He might "not be dealing with this," but he has people who, with his knowledge, are shuttling between him and Netanyahu in an attempt to reach an agreement. One of these mediators told Netanyahu more or less as follows: "Silvan still has the potential to do damage. If you want to get a decision passed in the central committee before the elections, you will need him. In the internal elections he can still be a problem. And worst of all, imagine that he gets pushed down below the first five on the list and you won't have anybody there who is an outstanding Mizrahi [of Middle Eastern of North African origins]."

Meanwhile, Netanyahu will not hear of any of this. He is haughty, almost euphoric. When he moved up the primary, he said: "Silvan needs to be shut up." From this point of view, he achieved his goal, even at the painful price of Feiglin's "upgrading." Today, Shalom is clearly seeking placation. He wants to soften the burning grudge Netanyahu's supporters have against him. He will try to protect the narrative about his dropping out of the race by explaining why the early primary was a "mistake," but he will also make do with this and not attack Netanyahu. After comparing him to Assad, what else can he say about him? That he is Ahmadinejad? Bin Laden?

Man of all seasons

Last week we reported here briefly on talks Tafnit head Uzi Dayan is holding with Ehud Barak, through attorney Eldad Yaniv, on joining the Labor Party. The report raised eyebrows among a number of senior Likud officials. Dayan has been flirting with them as well, it turns out. He and Netanyahu have been meeting together for some time, always alone. They are not meeting to hash over the old days in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, but rather are trying to put together a platform, or in less delicate terms, to hammer out the cost and conditions for Dayan's joining Likud.

This is not the first time Dayan has raised collective eyebrows in Likud. On July 10, Netanyahu held a rally marking a year since the Second Lebanon War, which was billed as a Likud party rally. All those in attendance were central committee members, and to the surprise of the MKs, the keynote speaker, besides Netanyahu, was Major General (res.) Uzi Dayan. Since when has Dayan become an expert witness on the Second Lebanon War? Why Netanyahu is energetically courting Moshe Dayan's nephew, who is also a high-ranking officer in the reserves, can be understood: Likud has many vacant spaces on its list and according to the polls, too few generals - only Yossi Peled. Another general named Dayan, who sprang from the Labor Party and whom Ehud Barak had groomed as chief of staff, would be a real sensation. That is exactly the reason why Barak is trying to bring him to Labor; so Netanyahu does not get him.

But what does Dayan have to do with all these games? After all, he is marketing himself as an honest politician, devoid of tricks and plots, who did everyone a favor by going into politics, only to bring in new, purer rules, and even to start a party whose name means "change in direction." This "indecision" and "bargaining" between Likud and Labor, gives a bad name even to the old politics. "There were approaches made," his bureau stated, "and meetings were held with senior figures in the political system. But no negotiations are under way, and Tafnit is focusing on signing up new members, increasing its strength and promoting its agenda."