Analysis / Or Report Won't Affect Barak's Comeback Plans

The most calculating person in Israeli politics also holds the record for the shortest tenure in office. But now, in preparation for "Operation Start from Scratch," Ehud Barak is closing all his active files, one by one: his wife, his house, the police probe, and the Or Commission.

The most calculating person in Israeli politics also holds the record for the shortest tenure in office. His fall, contrary to all planning, is attributable to the mysterious Y2K Bug that was so in fashion in 2000. But the bug has been destroyed, and now, in preparation for launching "Operation Start from Scratch," Ehud Barak is closing out all his active files, one by one: his wife Nava, the house in Kfar Shmaryahu, the police investigation into the nonprofit organizations that worked for his election in 1999, and the Or Commission.

Even if it is unfair to lump the family laundry together with a state commission of inquiry, the cumulative impression is that Barak is clearing his table of any potential sources of friction. Barak is embarking on a new path - or rather, he is trying to return to the old path, via a different route.

The Or Commission will not disrupt this effort, since there is no correlation between the recommendations of a commission of inquiry and a politician's fate. The Agranat Commission had mercy on Golda Meir, but the public did not. The Kahan Commission had mercy on Menachem Begin, but Begin himself did not. As for the Or Commission's decision to bar Shlomo Ben-Ami from ever serving as public security minister again, that is good news for someone who never wanted to be anything but prime or foreign minister.

Barak, who has made himself hated by many of his former supporters, will not be unbeatable in his own party, but his strength is likely to grow over time, and polls showing that Labor has a chance to return to power under his leadership will quickly buy him forgiveness.

The speed of forgetting is even faster than the speed of light. By the time Barak's "time-out" from politics ends, the Or Commission's report will have been filed on the same shelf where all its predecessors are yellowing, among them the report issued by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein and State Prosecutor Edna Arbel on then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (in the Bar-On affair) and their reasons for not indicting Ariel Sharon in the Russian gas affair. The public heard - if it had not left the room at that moment for a commercial break - but it did not get excited. That is what is known as democracy.

No senior elected official in Israel has ever been permanently banished. Sharon, whom the Kahan Commission barred from serving as defense minister, is the person most frequently mentioned in this context, but his case is hardly unique. David Ben-Gurion, who resigned as prime minister of his own free will, with no breath of scandal, returned to power after a stopover in the Defense Ministry. Pinhas Lavon lost the defense portfolio following the Olshan-Dori Commission's report, but was compensated with another power center, the Histadrut secretariat. Moshe Dayan was frozen out for three years following the fall of Golda's government, but returned to Begin's government as foreign minister. Yitzhak Rabin became defense minister seven years after resigning as prime minister and returned to the Prime Minister's Office eight years later.

Twenty years ago, the Kahan Commission deposed Sharon - whose contribution to the October 2000 riots, in the form of his provocative visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, merits a mere five words from the Or Commission - from his lofty position as defense minister, one rung below the top of the political ladder. But he retained his status as one of his party's leaders, and after a mere 18 months without a portfolio, he received the Industry and Trade Ministry from Shimon Peres.

Barak has used his copious spare time since losing to Sharon to take apart the history of Israel's governments and put it back together again. Rabin's role was to follow an old leader (Golda, Yitzhak Shamir). Peres' role, in both the 1970s and the 1990s, was to lose to Rabin and then inherit from him a few years later. Barak's role is to wrest leadership of the Labor Party away from Peres and then defeat Netanyahu in the race for prime minister. And if one shares the widespread assumption that Sharon's government is nearing its end, due to the criminal investigations of him and his son, and that he will be succeeded as Likud chairman by Netanyahu - then the stage is set for another Barak-Netanyahu race.

As commander of Division 252 in the Sinai - the division was in Sinai, he less so - Barak often visited Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. There he learned a lesson from his good friend Ori Simhoni, who quoted a British lecturer as saying that anyone who wants to topple an incumbent prime minister must say only three things: 1) the situation is grave, 2) the incumbent is guilty, and 3) I have a plan (but don't go into details - that will merely invite counterattacks).

Barak evidently believes that about two years into his term - say, about 2006 - Netanyahu will run into diplomatic, economic or social difficulties that will leave him vulnerable to attack. That will be the right moment for Barak's return. In Barak's computer, this is the "Windows 2006" program. By then, the Or Commission's report will be a distant memory - like Land Day and the first intifada, neither of which prevented Rabin's victory in 1992.

Rabin was 70 at the time, Shamir beat Peres at age 73, and Sharon has twice been elected prime minister in his eighth decade. Barak, at 61, has time.