Rasputin and the Czar

Underlying the 'Eldad Yaniv scandal' is Ehud Barak's lust for power, combined with excessive political manipulation by his adviser. Also: political winners and losers of the teachers' strike.

In terms of the "test of the result," an expression Ehud Barak coined during his term as prime minister, this was a bad week for the defense minister. Not because of the deluge of Qassam rockets that fell on Sderot, but because his style of management is back on the public agenda. Barak cannot come out well from a situation like this, just as a chicken will not come out well from a visit to the slaughterhouse. The moment he is compelled to compete in this arena, his fate is sealed. A Pandora's box has been opened.

A routine, albeit sad, matter - the firing of an adviser - was inflated to the dimensions of a national crisis. Generations of advisers were interviewed on the radio; stunned and grieved, they offered their learned opinions. An important newspaper devoted a banner headline and most of its front page to the story. From the heights of the two skyscrapers in which he lives and works, Akirov Towers and the Defense Ministry, Barak monitored the reports with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they proved to him that in firing his adviser, attorney Eldad Yaniv, he had done the right thing; on the other hand, they made it clear that the road to the Prime Minister's Bureau is still long. If Labor were showing its popularity at a level of 30 Knesset seats in the public-opinion polls, like the Likud, Barak could gamble on elections now, even if his personal character is considered problematic. But when there are no seats to speak of, and when the leader's personality and management style become the target of carpet bombing, he should stay where he is - in the Defense Ministry - and do what he knows best: send the Israel Defense Forces to carry out complex missions in the enemy's rear, deploy for the Iranian threat and supervise planning for the large-scale operation in Gaza that he hopes will not be needed.

Barak is said to be Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's subcontractor, whose presence provides Olmert with the essential security umbrella of the kind that Amir Peretz did not provide. Let people say what they want, Barak retorts, I will do what is best for the country, even if it helps Olmert. In the end, he believes, this will be the correct election strategy. His voters, from Labor, expect him to do what is best, and that is exactly what he is doing and will continue to do, he says, when the full version of the Winograd Committee report on the Second Lebanon War is published.

So we had a bad week, Barak said to his advisers after the dust had settled - the year has 51 more weeks. From his viewpoint, of course, he made no mistake at all: not in the dismissal, not in the way it was done, and not in the move to amend Labor's constitution, which drove the party's secretary general, Eitan Cabel, up the wall. Anyone who spoke to Barak this past week found the old Barak: fiery, prone to peroration, preachy, inattentive.

I have not changed, Barak likes to say, the surroundings have changed. And as he sees things, they have not changed for the better. He doesn't understand why such a big deal is being made of Yaniv's firing.

Firing by text message

The firing of Yaniv, Barak's new-old political strategist, is a labyrinthine affair worthy of a Byzantine court. It's not so clear that it is of interest to the public, and it is also difficult to decide who the good and bad guys are. There is no doubt that Barak, like any political leader, is entitled to fire someone in whom he has no trust. There is also no doubt that Yaniv contributed mightily to Barak's victory in the contest for Labor Party leadership. Nor is there any doubt that in the past few months, at least in Barak's eyes, Yaniv became more of a liability than an asset. Anyone who listens to Barak's version of events finds it hard to understand how Yaniv lasted so long at the side of someone as suspicious and authoritarian as Barak. Anyone who listens to Yaniv's account comes away amazed that someone as opinionated, talented, sophisticated and independent as him agreed to go on working for such an undisciplined boss.

Barak wanted to give Yaniv the boot a month ago. They met in Barak's home and talked, and decided to give their working relations one more - last - chance.

Their final meeting, a week ago, was brutal. On Barak's desk was the "constitution," the party's Magna Carta. A moldy, decaying document that no one has ever touched. Certain clauses had been highlighted. Barak had gone over the old wording and the new text by Yaniv, and concluded that the adviser was trying to transfer powers from the chairman to the secretary general, Cabel, Yaniv's good friend.

In light of this, Barak said to Yaniv, the time has come to talk about the future of our relationship. Yaniv understood that Barak was about to fire him. Let's continue the conversation another time, he said to Barak, so that I will also have the opportunity to tell you what I think about your management style. If you want, you can fire me by text message. Barak refused. Yaniv insisted.

The two continued to quarrel, and then Yaniv left. At this point, Barak, usually cool and collected, got uptight. He was concerned that Yaniv would call the political correspondents to announce his resignation, tarnishing the boss in the process. Barak instructed his spokesman, Moshe Ronen, to issue the dismissal statement immediately, and it reached the correspondents close to midnight.

Lone man for the Knesset

The troubles between the two did not begin last week. In August, Barak married Nili Priel. The daily Maariv reported that a "senior minister" in Labor who was not invited to the private affair had commented: This is the old Barak. Barak put two and two together and reached the conclusion that the "senior minister" was actually Eldad Yaniv, who had himself not been invited.

In the months since then, there were reports and quotations from closed meetings - all or most of which, in Barak's view, were leaked by Yaniv. At the same time, the two men became involved in a series of confrontations: over the party's constitution, over what Barak should do after the final Winograd Committee report (Yaniv thinks Barak has to leave the government, Barak is in no hurry to do so), and so on.

In the meantime, things became more complicated. Into the picture stepped Moshe Shahal, who is drafting the constitution; Cabel, who takes offense at everything; Giora Eini, the veteran politico; and above them all Ben-Eliezer, whose goal was to get rid of Yaniv. One meeting followed another, and someone thought he was being shafted, and Shahal updated Cabel, and things like that. A "comedy of errors," in the words of cabinet minister Isaac Herzog.

Barak emerged from that comedy - which appears to be more like a farce - by the skin of his teeth. Wallowing in the turgid waters of the party will never be good for him. His ambition to gain more and more power by means of personal guarantees vis-a-vis the Knesset list will soon get him into ugly street fights. He doesn't yet know what awaits him from his supporters, let alone his opponents, who are threatening to split the party. The fact is that in the modern world a leader's fate is decided by public opinion, on the street, not by a party central committee. During the six years that he was out of politics, Barak followed Ariel Sharon, the master of political and personal management, admiringly. Does anyone remember Sharon dealing with the Likud's constitution or wrangling with its director general? Barak need only look at Ehud Olmert's political behavior, if he wants to learn a thing or two.

What remains after this whole political morass? Ehud Barak. Totally alone. With a spokesman and two assistants, but without strategists capable of running a complex campaign or political operators intimately familiar with the dark alleys of the Labor Party.

The sponge and the vest

The strike is over, the students have returned to school, no one knows whether there will be a reform of the education system. But on this unfestive occasion it's worth saying a few words about the major actors in the protracted show on which the curtain fell yesterday.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir comes out of the strike the way her patron, MK Amir Peretz, came out of the Second Lebanon War: bruised and bleeding. Her political career suffered a mortal blow in the Education Ministry, which was her heart's desire. What kind of virus lurks in that ministry, that wipes out the leading women in politics? Tamir's predecessor, Limor Livnat, the first lady of the Likud, was barely reelected to the Knesset after five years in the ministry. Tamir, the first lady of Labor, is liable to find herself in a similar situation. Livnat got into trouble for being too brutal, Tamir for being too weak - an intolerable trait in politics - and because of her total solidarity with the Finance Ministry and its officials. That was her major strategic mistake in this struggle, and it became even more glaringly apparent when she showed up with Finance Minister Roni Bar-On at the press conference in which it was announced that back-to-work orders would be sought against the teachers, as though she were a treasury official.

Which brings us to Bar-On, who turned out to be quite the political genius. For two months, until the past few days, he was not identified with the strike. He gave only a few interviews on the subject. He let Tamir take the fire. She was his protective vest. His alibi. Imagine if Benjamin Netanyahu had been finance minister - everyone would have been after his scalp. He would have automatically been perceived as someone who wanted to break the teachers. Bar-On is no less brutal than Netanyahu, but politically he is more savvy (okay, that doesn't take much). He adopted a low profile, and emerged clean and pressed - his usual elegant self.

Which brings us to the third side of the triangle: Ehud Olmert. He, too, wanted to stay away from the quicksand, while "giving full backing to the finance minister and the education minister." Olmert was criticized for his silence, for his remoteness, for his meeting with Jerry Seinfeld, but relatively speaking he survived this saga. Simply because there is just nothing to be said about him. He is like a sponge. Like SpongeBob. He absorbs and absorbs things, but at some stage it no longer matters much. Besides, when was any prime minister here ever hurt because of problems in the education system? Did we already mention Ariel Sharon?