Waiting in the Wings

Ehud Barak is launching a 'non-campaign' for the Labor leadership, while Amir Peretz plots a political crisis around his own plan.

It happened a month ago in New York. Four people were sitting around a table at a restaurant in the Regency Hotel: Ehud Barak, his partner Nili Priel, Silvan Shalom and his wife Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes. Barak had heard that Shalom was in town and suggested the meeting. Barak values Shalom's political sense very much, and asked him what to do.

"If you run for the post of defense minister, you'll win," Shalom told him. "This is your second chance. Rabin, who was a decorated chief of staff and an excellent ambassador, failed in his first term and succeeded in his second. Netanyahu, who was an excellent ambassador to the United Nations, failed in the first. You - who were Soldier No. 1, the most decorated - did not succeed at being defense minister or interior minister in your first term."

Everything, Shalom continued, "is a matter of experience. Take a look at Sharon and Peres."

Shalom didn't use the words "you failed" in describing Barak's experience. That would have been unpleasant.

About a week ago, in the back of the Knesset plenum, Amir Peretz encountered Shalom. It was also important for Peretz to hear what the Likudnik had to say. Peretz was sitting next to Yuli Tamir. Shalom hesitated a little. "Speak freely," Peretz told him. "If you don't leave the government over a matter of principle," Shalom said, "the struggle will be over the defense portfolio. There you have a problem. If you were to leave, let's say, because of Lieberman, and become opposition leader, you could direct a social-economic struggle and rehabilitate the party."

Half of Shalom's idea fell on attentive ears. Now we must wait and see whether Peretz will adopt the second part. Persistent rumors say that even Peretz realizes there is no other option - that his portfolio, the object of every Israeli politician's dreams, is liable to bury him beneath it. These rumors are dismissed by Peretz, although some say that recently there have been cracks in the wall. When Peretz was asked whether he is considering leaving the Defense Ministry, which is a burden for him in the party primaries, he said: "I am defense minister. Period." Then he described a long list of tasks he seeks to accomplish, including the agenda for 2007, the development of an anti-rocket system and a multi-year budget. But when pressured, he mutters something along the lines of: Who knows what will happen here, so much has happened in seven months, the entire world is changing so fast.

Peretz tries to challenge journalists who press him by asking them to tell him how he failed. What mistaken decision did he make? Did they really expect that after two months in office he would be intimately familiar with the condition of the emergency war supplies, the problems of the Israel Defense Forces that were revealed in all their severity during the war? Peretz really could not have known. He simply had terrible luck. The war broke out when he didn't know his right from his left, when above him was a new prime minister and below him a chief of staff and Military Intelligence (MI) head from the air force.

This explanation could have satisfied the public if, let's say, a peace agreement had been signed with Arab countries after the war. But when the MI assessments are predicting another round, fairly soon, even Peretz understands deep down that someone else should be occupying his seat.

Peretz talks a lot about an "unprecedented incitement campaign" against him. For instance, when it comes to the political plan he developed along with the deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, and others. They worked on it for a month and a half and he announced in advance that it would be presented to the Labor Party faction immediately after the approval of the budget. That's what happened, but once again, the work of the devil was at hand: It came out precisely a day after Barak's announcement and Peretz immediately was accused of having some kind of shady scheme. Yet another one.

Peretz is plotting a political crisis around his plan. He intends to bring it before the government and demand that the ministers discuss and vote on it. If Ehud Olmert refuses, Peretz will try to rock the boat. The Labor Party, he has said in private conversations, will not be able to live in a government without a political plan.

Barak on Ritalin

"Ritalin," someone said. "Barak is on Ritalin. There's no other explanation. Or else India did something to him."

This man, Barak, who always looks like boiling lava is threatening to explode out of him and to burn his interlocutor; who used to grind down his listeners with long, winding, brilliant speeches that ended with the words "I did not make a mistake!"; who would roughly grab microphones at political conferences - nowadays, this man looks like a mutant combination of Collette Avital, Daniel Pe'er and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. His entire demeanor is suave; he exhibits perfect attentiveness and sublime calm. But his eyes still have that same cold, arrogant, all-knowing look.

People who meet Barak get a positive impression. He lets them talk. Then he tells them he plans to conduct a "non-campaign" - without mass conventions, without the media, without skipping between broadcast studios or slandering rivals. Every complaint aired about him, he promised, would shatter on the rocks of his silence. He officially announced his return to politics and told his veteran media consultant, Merav Parsi-Tzadok, that her services would no longer be needed. He claims he doesn't need a spokesperson in this campaign. He has no intention of letting his responses loose on the public or arguing with the entire world. Despite the norms in the political arena, he doesn't want to be accessible. The only thing that interests him, he adds, is to meet the voters and sit down with them, preferably in small groups: at homes, in cafes, in cafeterias. He wants to listen to them and respond to their questions. He wants to get into the Defense Ministry, put the system back on its feet, restore the IDF's self-esteem and public confidence in the army, and make Israel's enemies fear the IDF again.

When asked to explain people's forgiving attitude toward him, he said that they say: "We paid our dues, now let him work." He is aware that his revival, as reflected in recent polls, is primarily a result of the summer's war in Lebanon.

This week he met with the secretary general of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer. We would like to hear something about your political perspective, what a final-status agreement would look like, Oppenheimer said. You won't hear anything like that from me, Barak answered. I'm the last one who needs to prove the extent to which I would be prepared to go if a real partner were found. I was prepared to go further than the entire Labor leadership, but in the end I didn't give anything because we didn't receive anything. What do you prefer? To hear pleasant statements from someone who has no chance of getting into power, or to support someone who in the meantime is not handing out promises, but has a good chance of winning? Everything else, Barak told the young peacenik, is all details and tactics. I don't plan to run against someone else for the Labor leadership over political plans or political platforms. It's not a beauty contest.

If Barak wins, he plans to invest in the security establishment like no one has ever done before. And Labor? He would appoint people to deal with the party. And the economy, society? There are people in the party who know about that and he will let them deal with it. They should just let him work, allow him to prove that he can work hard, without the shady deals and "civil revolutions" that spring from mere words. That's the campaign. A campaign about a non- campaign, just like "Seinfeld" was a show about nothing.

Best form of spin

There's no need to be too impressed by Barak's nobility of spirit. It serves him well, better than any other known form of spin. His (temporary) abstinence from interviews is not harming him. On the contrary: He would be asked tough questions about the withdrawal from Lebanon, about his management of the Defense Ministry in the first months of the second intifada, about his non-reaction to the abduction of the three soldiers. About the hedonism, the business, the nouveau riche-ness. If all this can be avoided in the meantime, then why not? But it won't last forever. At some point he'll have to come out into the open.

Minister Isaac Herzog, a new-old Barak supporter, said they met a few days ago at a private party for former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak. Some 25 jurists and academics were present. After the speeches in honor of Barak the justice, someone tossed out a question for Barak the politician on the issue of the Iranian threat.

The former prime minister took the microphone, but instead of tiring out those in attendance with a long lecture, Herzog said he made do with a relatively brief answer. Sharp, not hysterical. Only then, added Herzog, did I realize how much he has changed.

There's one thing that cannot be taken away from Barak: Even in the first days of the war, he was hesitant, to say the least, about the whole fantasy that was initially accompanied by an enthusiastic and nearly universal public consensus. Already then, in private conversations, he predicted exactly how it would all end - from both the political and the military perspectives. Knowing the army as few do, he wondered why Israel needed to get involved in the war so happily, without spending a moment to think about the readiness of the home front or the capabilities of an IDF that had become a policing army in the territories. He asked, already then, why army divisions were not called up immediately after Hezbollah's abduction of two soldiers from the northern border. Why weren't they trained, he wanted to know. And anyway, who decided that Israel's reaction to an abduction should be a war? After all, before July 2006 there were five failed attempts at abduction. If it had been decided in advance that Israel would go to war over the next successful abduction attempt, then why wasn't the army prepared? And if no such decision was made, then why did we go to war? Why didn't Israel make do with massive shelling for 24-48 hours and declare: "We showed you - you've been warned!"?