In the Saddle Again?

After reading the Winograd Committee's scathing report, Ehud Olmert launched a heroic struggle for survival this week. Tzipi Livni collapsed under the pressure.

"This is a great day for the party, for the country and for the prime minister." Thus declared Vice Premier Shimon Peres, after the meeting of Kadima MKs on Wednesday at which the rebellion against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was blocked.

Exactly a week ago, Channel 10 news reported the main points of the Winograd Committee report, three days before its official release. The word "failure" did not appear in the scoop. The conclusions were unpleasant, but not fatal. At the beginning of the week Olmert was already being depicted as someone who had emerged safely from the briar patch. The revolt that had been planned within Kadima was postponed until the summer. His close associates promised that when the second Olmert government is established, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would pay the price for her treachery. The next day the official interim report was issued. The sky fell down on Olmert, the earth opened up under his feet and his time was measured in days. The question was not whether he would survive, but rather who would replace him: Livni, Peres, or opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

The party rebels came out of their lairs. Livni gave the green light to Likud whip MK Avigdor Yitzhaky. MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima), who has been waiting for Olmert at the bottom of the ladder ever since he forgot to appoint her as a minister, called on him to resign. Olmert launched a heroic struggle for survival, fighting from house to house, from MK to MK, from party to party. His efforts bore fruit: MK Michael Nudelman (Kadima) (yes, there is such a person) repented. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who like his predecessor at the Shin Bet security service, MK Ami Ayalon (Labor), chalks up a new chapter in political naivete every week, also swore fealty to Olmert, a day after delivering a moving eulogy for him. Then there was one: Tzipi. She too collapsed under the pressure, because she was not built to withstand it. Thus a circle was closed: Olmert is in the saddle again, at least until the next uproar, and Tzipi is in the crosshairs, as though everything begins and ends with her and her hesitations rather than with a miserable war conducted with giddy, hasty amateurism.

Tzipi sold us out

A few months ago, after testifying to the Winograd Committee, Livni told those close to her that she had not been hard on Olmert. An aide to the prime minister who overheard the remark hastened to tell the boss. "She didn't step on your head," he reported.

On Monday evening, after Winograd and his colleagues left the Prime Minister's Bureau, Olmert and his advisors attacked the copies of the report, reading them in silence, at first. Page after page, disaster after disaster and to their astonishment, so they say, they discovered a new reality. According to Olmert's associates, Livni had told the committee fictions: about the draft of a final-status peace agreement they say has never been found; about one-on-one she had with Olmert a few days after the war began in which she claimed to advise him to look for a "diplomatic out." Olmert claims that Livni said no such thing during their five-minute meeting but rather apologized for having voted against bombing Beirut's Dahiya Quarter in the security cabinet.

Tzipi sold Olmert down the river, in cold blood, with a clear mind and with malice aforethought. She began the putsch not on the day after the report was released, but rather months before. It began with her testimony to the committee. She was so keen to be prime minister, so certain that she is ready.

When Livni came to Olmert's office Wednesday afternoon, he knew he had her in the palm of his hand. The revolt that was to have crowned her as the heir was disintegrating. Olmert, that experienced political fox, a survivor and a first-rate manipulator, has forgotten more than Livni has ever learned. "The report, after all, deals with the first five days of the war," he said to her sarcastically. "Where were you then?".

Olmert is not arguing with the committee, that much is clear, but he thinks it has been disproportionately hard on him. The report says he is inexperienced and in the same breath accuses him of having blindly adopted the army's recommendations. If I'm inexperienced, Olmert asks, then on what basis am I supposed to reject the army's recommendations? And let's say that I am inexperienced, but the seven-member security cabinet contains the most experienced ministers in the government and they supported everything.

On Wednesday, at the cabinet meeting, Olmert plunked a copy of the law journal Hapraklit on the desk. "Read this, there's an interesting article here on retrospective analyses," he said sarcastically. If we had assassinated [Hezbollah head] Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah on the last day of the war, one Olmert aide ventured, the commission would not have been established and the whole thing would have been considered a great victory. If on July 17, the fifth day of the war, Olmert had come to the Knesset and announced: "We have hit Hezbollah hard, we have destroyed their stock of long-range missiles; the time has come to stop the fighting and move on to diplomacy," the Likud would have lynched him. They would have organized demonstrations against him, claiming that he is weak, a coward, and is damaging Israel's deterrent power.

Livni's fumble at her press conference on Wednesday brought the color back to Olmert's cheeks. But he and his people know this is cold comfort. When a prime minister and the most senior and most popular minister in his cabinet are slinging mud at each other, the prime minister will not come out a winner even if his opponent's face is blackened more. Olmert has nothing to celebrate, and if he has any sense he will not hurt Livni. With all her flaws, she is still an asset to his government and to Kadima. It is quite possible that the media pummeling she underwent yesterday will only toughen her.

Olmert, even after winning a round against Livni, has lost the trust of the public. He is crippled, stained and weak. "He can survive, but what for?," one of his biggest supporters said this week. "There has to be a point to survival, a reason to get up in the morning. Why is he there if he can't do anything in any case?"

Peretz's credit

On the eve of the elections last year, Olmert met with former prime minister Ehud Barak to explain that for partisan reasons he would not be able to bring him into the cabinet. Olmert had a similar conversation with Dan Meridor a few hours earlier. Barak warned Olmert against appointing Amir Peretz defense minister. "Two months after the establishment of the government you could find yourself facing a difficult military situation," Barak told Olmert. "When you look to your right you will see Tzipi Livni. When you look to your left you will see (former finance minister) Abraham Hirchson and when you look straight ahead of you will see Peretz. All are inexperienced. With whom will you consult?"

Four days after the war broke out, Barak said the following to several journalists: "A tactical failure [the abductions of the two soldiers - Y.V.] is about to become a strategic failure." Meridor made the identical predication. If on July 12, 2006, Barak and Meridor had been sitting at the cabinet table, things would have looked different. A look at the Winograd report shows that Olmert and Peretz needed mentors in those days.

On Monday night, after Peretz and his people had read through the report, the defense minister had a constructive suggestion: to assemble the positive statements about him in the report and send them to Labor party members. This, too, is a way "repair the failures." That is what Peretz cares about, now and 10 months ago.

In the first week of the war he held a series of meetings with political supporters at his office in the Knesset. Afterward, one said Peretz was worried that the cunning Olmert would steal the public credit for the war from him. "It was really driving him crazy," the supporter related. "He kept talking about how the public has to know how dominant he was in the story."

At that meeting in Peretz's office last Monday night, attended by many spokespersons and advisors, none of them suggested that Peretz should resign. Why? Olmert won't resign either. The next morning, MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) called Peretz. She has not been on his team of advisors for some time, but she demanded that he resign immediately. She said it was the right thing to do, that it would purify him, at least in part, in the mind of the public and it would also help his standing in the Labor primaries among people like herself, from the social, ideological milieu, who have abandoned him.

Peretz was almost persuaded. The next day at the cabinet meeting he took Education Minister Yuli Tamir aside and told her he was considering resigning. Afterward, he returned to his office and talked to whomever he talked to, and changed his mind. He is incapable of giving up this outpost. Conquered territory shall not be relinquished, even if it is clear to him - and he said as much - that he will not be there in a month. Anyway, there are primaries now and it is easier to wage this hopeless battle from the Defense Ministry, with its million paid advisors and spokesmen, with a helicopter on tap and big bodyguards to clear his path.

Peretz does not see one step ahead. He does not understand that he would been much better off resigning immediately, on the evening of the Winograd report. Perhaps he will come to understand. Yesterday too, as these lines were written, he was under heavy pressure to resign from people who wish him well. Yes, there are still a few of those around.

Barak can profit

The committee's partial report has destroyed all of the working assumptions that had supported the political system. Olmert's people had assumed that by the end of May, or mid-June at the very latest, Labor Party would have a new leader - Barak or Ami Ayalon - who would replace Peretz at the Defense Ministry. By then, a new finance minister would have been named. The current candidates are Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, MK Haim Ramon and Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, and the second Olmert government would be on a new track. The plant was to embark on a military operation in the Gaza Strip, immediately after which Olmert would sell to the public his plant to revive the peace process, as prime minister Ariel Sharon did in 2002 - Operation Defensive Shield, followed by the Gaza disengagement plan.

In the meantime, there have been complications. Ayalon announced that if he is elected Labor Party chairman he will not join the government. Unless he changes his mind again, in June Olmert could become the head of a minority government, with only 59 supporters in the Knesset. This will lead to early elections. Ehud Barak is keeping mum. He has still not said what he will do if elected Labor head. He knows that Olmert's days are measured. On one hand, he has no reason to join a crumbling government. On the other hand, military issues still supersede any political considerations. More precisely: Barak, as a strong and dominant defense minister, can only gain from being paired with a weak prime minister. When he breaks his silence, Barak will speak about "experience" and "knowledge," and will say that this would not have happened to Sharon, the late Yitzhak Rabin or himself.

If on Monday evening Barak's associates believed that he was through with this government, yesterday they sounded more cautious. If elected party chairman he might well join the government. If Olmert leaves after the Winograd Committee issues its final report, Barak will have no trouble living with Peres as acting prime minister. On the contrary: He would prefer Peres to Livni, assuming she is still a candidate. Livni could be a rival in the next general election, while Peres will not run next year, at the age of 85. Besides, Peres is not what he once was. He is less energetic, more tired, and will give Barak free reign to treat the government and the country as if they were his.

Incidentally, the script according to which Acting President Dalia Itzik invites Peres to form a government after Olmert resigns contains a constitutional crisis that no one has considered: Itzik is an MK for Kadima. If Peres musters the support of 61 MKs for the required majority, Itzik could be among them. This will be unprecedented, as an incumbent MK has never before served as president. Someone could petition the High Court of Justice, and things could get complicated.