Signs of Fracture

Every Labor Party leadership change this decade has caused a government to fall. Can Ehud Olmert expect this round to be any different?

Another week has gone by for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is waiting for the next crisis that will shake the chair he sits on. On Monday this week, he coasted easily through a series of no-confidence votes in the Knesset. This ease, however, concealed a disturbing truth: The Labor Party has begun the process of leaving the coalition. Eight Labor Knesset members were purposely absent from the voting. Two and a half weeks from now, the Labor Party will hold its primaries, which are the greatest threat to Olmert's continued tenure. This week, one politician said a government minister from Kadima had told him he was beginning to see signs of breakage in the prime minister.

Olmert, assessed the minister, might well resign even before the Winograd Committee's final report, which is expected in August, only so as not to go down in history as the prime minister who was deposed by a commission. This sounds logical. But it does not mesh with things Olmert told a number of people this week. He said he was confident he would succeed in pulling himself out of the pit into which he sunk after the war. To make this concrete, he resorted to history: "I've had my Bay of Pigs," he said. "Now I'm waiting for a missile crisis."

A short historical reminder: After the United States' failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, President John F. Kennedy and his country were embarrassed and humiliated. A year and a half later, a more experienced Kennedy tensely managed a standoff with the Soviet Union, after the latter deployed nuclear missiles targeting the United States from its satellite state. The Bay of Pigs imbroglio was forgotten, and Kennedy's success in managing the crisis established his presidency.

If Olmert is comparing the Lebanon War to the Bay of Pigs, this is a sign that he too has internalized that the war was not a dizzying success. (Olmert's bureau has affirmed that he has made the analogy.) But the more intriguing question is: What did he mean by the second part of the equation? Does the "missile crisis" he is wishing for really have to do with missiles? Iran? Syria? Or is this perhaps a euphemism for success, for a concrete diplomatic achievement?

The quiet that has prevailed in the political arena since the suppression of the revolt in Kadima is deceptive; it is like the quiet that envelopes the battlefield while the forces are licking their wounds from the previous battle and organizing for the crucial confrontation. Kadima MK Avigdor Itzchaky whispered to several people this week that the rallying to depose the prime minister is broadening and deepening. They are waiting for the Labor primaries.

Over the course of this decade, every time the Labor Party has chosen a leader, it has culminated in the fall of the government and elections. But history does not always repeat itself. Kadima is hoping that the Labor Party primaries accelerate the departure of Olmert and the establishment of a new government. In the Likud, they know this is their crucial moment: A number of senior party members have been speaking with Labor Party colleagues and have tried to convince them, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, that fast elections will in fact be to their benefit.

"If we go to elections now," the Likudniks are saying, "Kadima will not have time to get organized, its people will scatter, and that's where your natural reservoir of votes is. Together, the Likud and Labor, we can crush Kadima, get more than 50 Knesset seats and reach the 61 seats necessary to establish a unity government, and then dictate the entrance criteria to the rest of our partners."

These messages have minority leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu's backing. Through various channels, he is sending word that if he is elected, he will not establish a government of the right and the ultra-Orthodox, but rather will turn first to Labor. The problem, Laborites say, is that it's Bibi. He is trying to persuade us to act in accordance with what is convenient for him, on his playing field. This is like the cat trying to persuade the mouse to come out of his hole and play, by saying he has changed and is no longer that kind of cat.

The horse is bucking

At the beginning of the week, Ehud Barak's supporters had a look at their public opinion polls and their faces drained of color: Barak's slow and steady rise, about one percentage point a week, had come to a standstill. They concluded that this was due to the sense among registered Labor Party members that Barak was in Olmert's pocket and that he would be his defense minister, no matter what. If up until Winograd issued its intermediate findings this had been Barak's winning card, along came the report and reshuffled the deck. An urgent and immediate change in strategy was needed. This change has caused, for the first time, a crack in the Barak camp: Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog did not want to hear him give an ultimatum to Olmert. Up until the last minute, right up until he emerged from the Volvo at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, they tried to discourage him from saying things that were too harsh. They begged him and they pressured him. "Poor things," clicked one of their peers scornfully. "They bought a horse and it has started to buck."

Resigning minister Eitan Cabel and advisor Eldad Yaniv were of the opposite opinion. They held that Barak should disassociate himself entirely from Olmert and divorce him during a live broadcast in order to restart his campaign.

Barak chose the latter strategy, with a wink to "our ministers": He would not join the government, but he would not pull the party out of it the way (now Defense Minister) Amir Peretz did in November 2005. He would try to bring forward the elections (Barak is talking about November 2007), and until then would be kind enough to serve as defense minister under Olmert. And he called upon Olmert to draw the obvious conclusions. Now there are at least two senior politicians who think Olmert should resign: a foreign minister and a potential defense minister. And they are the ones who are saying this openly.

Incidentally, of all the Labor candidates, Peretz is the only one who hasn't yet said similar things. On the contrary: He in fact is promising to remain in the government if he is elected - not as defense minister, but rather as finance minister. How ironic that Peretz of all people is giving Olmert an insurance policy, but this is an empty policy.

Nevertheless, this setup raises a number of questions: Supposing Barak is elected and he starts discussing early elections with the other Knesset factions. What will happen if he does not manage to recruit a majority? After all, this Knesset is barely 14 months old. It will not volunteer to disperse itself only because of the cosmic event of Ehud Barak's election as Labor Party chair.

Barak's people reply that "it's impossible to attack the Prime Minister's Office with tanks and expel him." And another question: Who will serve as defense minister until things sort themselves out? After all, this process is liable to take several weeks. It is reasonable to assume that Amir Peretz will hasten to leave the Defense Ministry, which has led to the destruction of his political career. What will Olmert do? Will he hold the portfolio himself, after the Winograd report? Will he appoint Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz as defense minister for an interim period? Mofaz will not agree to be a stopgap. During the past year, he has been expressing his amazement to the prime minister's associates at the unofficial alliance between Ehud O. and Ehud B. and the desire Olmert has evinced for the coming of Barak the messiah. "I don't understand Olmert," says Mofaz. "After all, Barak thinks only of himself - he will build himself up at the Defense Ministry, and then he will topple Olmert and head for elections."

Barak's press conference at Sdot Yam received extraordinary media attention. The media have already crowned Barak. Possibly too early. A similar announcement by Labor MK Ami Ayalon last week won a few lines in the newspapers. Barak's non-campaign has succeeded beyond all expectations: It has engendered a tremendous thirst for his words. His rivals can only grit their teeth. Ayalon, MK Ophir Pines-Paz and MK Danny Yatom have accused him of concealing his real intentions: joining up with Olmert on the grounds of security needs. Some of Barak's supporters share this opinion, but Cabel is convinced that if Barak hops into the government it will be the end of him and he will never be prime minister.

Dalia is devastated

Next week, Vice Premier Shimon Peres will be going abroad for three days - two days in Jordan and a day in Estonia. This is how he plans to conduct his fight for the presidency. He has forgotten, Kadima members say, that the electoral body is here in our Knesset and not in foreign palaces and parliaments. Not only does Peres often make the rounds abroad, where they tend to receive him as though he were a president anyway - he also reviles his electors, the 119 Knesset members whose votes he needs. He complains that it is impossible to trust them and that extraneous and deceptive interests are at play. On Wednesday evening, after quite a bit of hesitation, Peres informed Olmert that he was running for president.

Acting President Dalia Itzik, who was hoping Peres would relinquish the post and hold out for the prime ministership - so that she could run instead - took this poorly. People who saw her Wednesday evening at a family celebration of Knesset Secretary Yisrael Maimon formed the impression that Dalia is devastated.

Peres' fate will be determined by his support in two parties: Kadima and Shas. To be elected, he needs all of Shas' votes and 90 percent of the votes of his Kadima colleagues. At the moment he has neither. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will go with the winner. Shas will choose its candidate at the very last minute, before the vote. On Wednesday, Likud MK Reuven Rivlin paid a visit to the rabbi, heard warm words from him and received a few slaps on the cheek, which, as everyone knows, is the ultimate expression of the rabbi's love.

For Peres, Kadima is a no less disturbing mystery. Rivlin has quite a few friends there from the Likud days, but not only. Peres' chances of being elected president depend on what shape Olmert is in the day the elections are held, June 13 or 14. If Olmert makes it successfully through the Labor Party primaries - that is, if he doesn't fall, is not removed from office, and the elections are not moved forward - then the collective desire of his colleagues to give him an achievement in the Knesset will grow. But if Olmert is on the way out, very few will take his desire to see Peres elected into consideration. The vote will become entirely personal, devoid of factional commitment. Some Kadima members will vote for Peres so that Olmert will not have anyone to shield him from a putsch, as Peres did in the previous round; and others will vote for Rivlin precisely because they are angry at Peres for preventing Olmert's deposal 10 days ago. Yet others will vote for Rivlin because they want to put Peres back in the prime ministerial arena, in order to avoid elections. Confused? You are not alone.