Holding Pattern

Tuesday, March 6, 2007, was supposed to be one of those historic days. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss planned to give the speech of his life, in the wake of which the prime minister would be compelled to resign and the government would fall. That is how Lindenstrauss envisioned it and he shared these thoughts with a number of people. He was certain that his findings would have the impact of an asteroid striking the earth. So eager was he to see it happen that he forgot to ask for a response from the subjects of his criticism.

This was not the first time the comptroller had fantasized out loud about how he would bring down Olmert. Last summer, when the report on alleged improprieties surrounding Olmert's purchase of a house on Cremieux Street in Jerusalem was due for release, Lindenstrauss anticipated that its details would be so shocking as to set off a tsunami that would sweep Olmert from office. In a briefing for journalists, he remarked that by the opening of the Knesset's winter session in October, Olmert would no longer be prime minister.

Six months later, the Cremieux report has yet to be published. The comptroller and the prime minister have been exchanging drafts and correspondence, but even in Lindenstrauss' office, not everyone is convinced that the affair involves any criminal conduct.

More and more officials in the State Comptroller's Office are beginning to see that something is wrong with the boss. Lindenstrauss' keenness to see Olmert's head roll is causing him to lose perspective. His conduct this week led to one of the greatest embarrassments in the history of the institution he heads. By the time these lines were written, yesterday morning, he had not yet found an attorney to represent him before the High Court of Justice in the hearing on the petition submitted by the chief of the Home Front Command (HFC), Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, to block publication of the report.

The problematic conduct of Lindenstrauss does not make Olmert a saint or a victim. This week it handed Olmert a victory in one skirmish, but he is still in the throes of a battle for his political and public life. As long as he is perceived as corrupt, untrustworthy and unsuitable, he stands no chance against the comptroller. Any comptroller.

O brother, where art thou?

The assortment of questionable episodes trailing Olmert from every position he has held in the last decade is making his continued tenure nearly impossible. Olmert's public standing, which is at an abysmal low, is giving the comptroller encouragement. He is not the only one. This week, Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu officially launched his campaign for the premiership: He summoned reporters and announced that he was prepared to form a government composed of refugees from Kadima (to whom he promised safe positions on Likud's candidate list in the next election).

Kadima hastened to deny any interest among its MKs in returning to Likud. Next, Netanyahu and Likud Knesset whip Gideon Sa'ar produced Eli Livni, the brother of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a lieutenant colonel in the reserves, who announced his decision to renounce his membership in Kadima and register as a Likud voter once more. The move caused the popular foreign minister some major discomfort. Is this the first crack in Tzipi's Teflon coating? It's too early to say. When it comes to family, it is difficult to distinguish between the political and the personal, but once again we learned that you can't choose your family the way you can choose your political party.

If Netanyahu had to choose the brother of any senior Kadima official to try to entice back to the Likud, then Livni's brother was the obvious choice. Netanyahu expects that in the not-too-distant future, he and Livni, as Olmert's almost-certain heir to the party throne, will battle over the formation of a new coalition. For Netanyahu, she is the target. Every little blow she absorbs from now until the current coalition explodes serves his interest, inching him closer to the Prime Minister's Office.

A blow to dignity

There is a venerable institution in Israel known as Segel Aleph (the A-list), which specifies the dignitaries who are invited to state ceremonies and their ranking on the list. The events they grace with their presence include state funerals, Independence Day celebrations and the opening sessions of the Knesset. The list includes former and current presidents and prime ministers, as well as cabinet ministers, chief rabbis, judges and the like. First on the list is the president, followed by the prime minister and the Knesset speaker. Seventh place is reserved for the state comptroller.

About a year ago, the chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols, Dan Naveh, appointed a committee to review the list and revise it as needed. A few weeks ago, the committee presented its recommendations to Naveh's successor as chairman, Yaakov Edri. The committee's main recommendation was to move up the leader of the opposition and "the Knesset" to places 8 and 9, and to drop the comptroller to the tenth spot.

What a difference just three places can make: Numbers 7 and 10 are separated not by three people, but by about 95 (the number of MKs who are not cabinet ministers). This is no laughing matter. It represents a significant blow to the comptroller's honor.

Although the ranking has no real practical significance - in the end, everyone goes to the same cocktail parties - that did not prevent the State Comptroller's Office from calling Edri's office in a panic and demanding that the list be restored to its previous order.

Someone in the comptroller's office apparently suspect that the shift was no accident. Edri is a gentle soul. He plans to send the list back to the committee, which includes representatives from the Prime Minister's Office, the Education Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces, for review. After all, as Lindenstrauss likes to tell diplomats, he is the head of the "fourth branch of government" (no mention of which is found in civics textbooks), and should be given his due.

Let Barak do it

Polls released this week of registered Labor Party members indicated that either Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon will be elected party chairman on May 28. Olmert (assuming he is still prime minister) is waiting for Barak, despite the growing trepidation in the prime minister's circle over the prospect. Some of Olmert's aides fear that Barak could end up overshadowing him. "He'll be a strong defense minister, while you are a weak prime minister," they tell Olmert. "He'll advance his own foreign policy and military agenda, but he won't necessarily support your program, and if he thinks it will serve him, he won't hesitate to bring you down despite your personal friendship," they whisper. "He is an experienced and unsentimental adversary. He could become a second prime minister, and you'll have to watch your back."

Olmert hears the remarks, but is still confident that this relationship will work. He believes that he and Barak have a common political future. Besides, Olmert, too, is sure of himself. He, too, is experienced and unsentimental. As he sees it, having Barak as his defense minister will strengthen him rather than weaken him.

Barak, meanwhile, slogs on, reacquainting himself with the country's highways and byways. A few days a week he travels around to meet party "activists" - five or six in every community he visits. I'm going to keep on until I launch my election campaign at the entrance to the geriatric hospital in Nahariya, he tells them. (They're not sure whether he's joking.) And when I am elected, you and I will put the military establishment, and the party, back on their feet.

Barak is following Ariel Sharon's model. During Barak's sojourn in the political wilderness (if such a description can be applied to first-class travel and luxury hotels), he studied Sharon's approach to election campaigns and his behavior as prime minister. The key behavior pattern that he has adopted is Sharon's exhortation to "Work quietly!"

A few weeks ago, Ami Ayalon laid out in these pages the three conditions he intended to demand from Olmert, as a prerequisite for Labor remaining in the coalition, if he were voted party chairman: a peace plan, accelerated construction of the security barrier and the passage of an evacuation-compensation law for West Bank settlers.

Barak's associates say their man has no such conditions. The day after he is elected Labor chairman, he intends to enter the Defense Ministry and get to work. He will not demand a renegotiation of the coalition agreement or the addition of this or that minister. "This time," they say, "actions will precede declarations. Accelerated construction of the fence? As defense minister, in charge of the budgets and the construction, Barak will know what to do. Peace plan? He was prime minister and conducted diplomatic negotiations. When [U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleezza [Rice] comes to the region he'll know what to say to her. Her meetings with him will have a different character than the courtesy calls she paid to Peretz."