Quitting? Who's Quitting?

Is it just a coincidence that two of Ehud Barak's closest confidants, Shalom Simhon and Matan Vilnai, said this week - on the record - that Labor will not leave the government after the Winograd Report is released?

Despite his populist, farmer appearance, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) is one of the most sophisticated politicians in the Knesset. He is also the person closest to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, his loyal confidant since Barak's early days in politics. So when it comes to Barak, it pays to listen to Simhon, and when Simhon says explicitly that the Labor Party will not leave the government after the final Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War is released, the ears perk up and the pen comes out.

Before the Labor Party primary Barak, together with MK Ophir Pines-Paz, promised at a press conference that if he were to win the primary, the party would quit the government after the publication of the report. Barak did win, only to disappear into the Defense Ministry. His silence has provoked much conjecture. Some think Barak wants to distance himself from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government as preparation for an imminent resignation. Others believe Barak simply doesn't want journalists nagging him over a quitting date.

At first glance, it appears that Simhon is expressing the opposite position of the one Barak holds. Is he preparing the ground for a change in that position, for and on behalf of Barak? Or is Simhon expressing his own opinion, a rebellious one that is liable to lead to clashes between Barak and the other Labor ministers? Considering the nature of Barak's relationship with Simhon, the second possibility seems unlikely.

"If Winograd doesn't ask the prime minister to draw personal conclusions, whoever wants to leave the government will need to find other reasons," Simhon said. "If Olmert is forced to leave, we'll go to elections in any case. But if a respected public committee doesn't tell the prime minister to go home, I won't tell him to go home either. Who is the Labor Party to send Olmert home if Winograd doesn't tell him to go? A little integrity is needed."

Nonetheless, Barak reiterated his commitment before the Labor Party Central Committee two weeks ago. "So we'll go back to the central committee," Simhon said calmly. "There should be no doubt that I very much want to see Barak as prime minister, as quickly as possible - but not because of Winograd. That is not only my position, it is also that of Fuad and Buji [ministers Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Isaac Herzog, respectively, leaders in the Barak camp] and other ministers.

"In contrast to his image, Olmert is not a bad prime minister," Simhon continued. "From our perspective, from the perspective of the Labor ministers, he's one of the best we've had. He understands the game better than any other prime minister, you can get things done with him. He meets with us, knows what's going on with us and understands the economic issues better than [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon. Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years. He knows every ministry inside and out, and we have no complaints. Since Barak became defense minister, the two often sit for hours and hours, and their conversations are very good," Simhon concluded.

In good company

This week the Likud Party Central Committee looked like a deflated balloon, lying lifeless on the ground. For the first time since the general election, Likud Chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to convene the committee in order to have it set the date for a primary. On Tuesday the familiar dais at the Tel Aviv Convention Center held only nine MKs, three-quarters of the Likud's Knesset presence. During the three years of the Sharon era, the table groaned under the weight of 40 MKs, lined up in three long rows behind their leader.

Instead of the party's director general opening the meeting by announcing the primary date, it was Moshe Feiglin, who will challenge Netanyahu from the far right of the party. Feiglin prattled on for several long minutes about a "leader with faith" who would save the country, and informed the crowd that the agreed-upon date was August 14. If this is how Netanyahu plans to run his campaign, he's in trouble.

The "Feiglinites" of the Likud's Jewish Leadership camp, who sneaked into the Likud by democratic means but don't actually vote for it in the general elections - are like a transplanted embryo that neither develops nor dies. They cannot be removed. Silvan Shalom's decision to quit the leadership race leaves Netanyahu facing Feiglin and has removed any semblance of democratic formality from the primary. Compare this to the fascinating and breathtaking struggle in the Labor Party that ended a month ago. Not only will the Likud race not interest anyone, it will end with a public-relations disaster for the party if Feiglin gets 20-25 percent of the votes. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. It could happen if turnout is low, with Netanyahu supporters not bothering to vote because they know he'll win anyway and Feiglin voters stampeding to the ballots en masse, armed with their messianic faith.

That is precisely what Shalom is hoping for. "May the best man win," Shalom said at the acrimonious press conference at which he bowed out of the race and compared the Likud to Syria's Ba'athist regime. The next morning, Netanyahu was horrified to open the papers and discover that Shalom's press conference had merited coverage. In Netanyahu's eyes, Shalom is a cipher, a remnant of the past, a pathetic creature of the central committee who has no power base in the party or among the public at large. Netanyahu views Shalom as a subversive who created himself through wheeling and dealing and an ability to maneuver between Netanyahu and Sharon, thereby winning top positions like finance minister (in 2001) and foreign minister (in 2003). If Shalom had run for the chairmanship, according to Netanyahu, he would have gotten 5 percent of the vote, the same as a horse might get if it, too, were running. (Netanyahu is exaggerating a bit: Party polls gave Shalom 10-12 percent.) Netanyahu associates are convinced that Shalom is helping Barak, just as Olmert did when he announced in front of the cameras in 1999 that "Barak won't divide Jerusalem" - thereby contributing to Barak's victory at the polls.

Netanyahu aides say Shalom has sent the party chair the message that he will destroy him if he doesn't get what he wants. An MK close to Netanyahu says Shalom delivered his demands to Netanyahu via a third party: the number-2 spot on the Likud's Knesset list, the position of deputy prime minister if Netanyahu wins and full participation in party decision-making.

The MK presented the list to Netanyahu on Wednesday, in the Knesset. Netanyahu was not pleased. I don't trust him, he said of Shalom. Before the general elections I reserved the No. 2 spot for him, and he paid me back by undermining me. Even if I wanted to do the same thing for him, the central committee and the MKs wouldn't let me - and anyway, why should I make an effort for him and get into an argument with all the MKs? He's finished anyway.

Shalom, for his part, denies the whole thing. I know them, and these are the methods they use, he said. Tomorrow they'll say I work for Feiglin.

Likud officials are convinced that Shalom is on his way out. Maybe he'll join the new centrist list Barak hopes to establish, or move on to the business world. But Shalom says he's just "moving over," temporarily. In general, he has a very high opinion of himself. He notes that before becoming prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin didn't run against Shimon Peres a second time, Sharon didn't run against Netanyahu, Barak didn't run against Amir Peretz and Netanyahu chose not to run against Sharon. Nevertheless, all eventually became prime ministers. If it worked for them, the thinking goes, then why not for him?