Given the Cold Shoulder

Because of Peretz, Peres has to leave the government again. Barak is adjusting to the new rules of the game. And Sharon is itching to leave the Likud - the question is with whom.

This was a moment Peres will find hard to forget. Perhaps this was the moment the defeat penetrated his consciousness in full force. It happened in his office at the Knesset, on Monday evening, immediately after the memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin. He was sitting with Environment Minister Shalom Simhon, a moshavnik, his own deputy minister, Orit Noked, a kibbutznik, and Ze'ev Shor, the head of the Kibbutz and Moshav Movement. They were discussing government Resolution 979, which deals with residential building rights at kibbutzim and moshavim. In the near future the government is slated to vote on the matter. For the kibbutzniks and the moshavniks, there is nothing more important. From their perspective, leaving the government at this time, before the resolution is approved, is a disaster.

Suddenly the voice of Amir Peretz could be heard from outside. I want to come in, he said. Mr. Peres is in a meeting, replied the secretary, but Peretz was already through the door. In his hand were letters of resignation from the government for the eight Labor ministers and the three deputy ministers. The people in the room stared at him in shock, as though they had caught a burglar in their bedroom in the middle of the night.

Sign, he commanded Simhon. The environment minister read the letter and signed.

Sign, said Peretz to Noked. Noked looked at Shor. I'm not sure I can sign, she said. What about Resolution 979? Excuse me, Peretz said to her. I'm having you sign just out of respect for you. By law, you are considered to have resigned the moment your minister has resigned. If you don't sign, what will they say about you? Sign, Simhon said to her. Bitterly, Noked signed.

Here, said Peretz to Peres, and handed him his letter. Look, said Peres, there's Resolution 979. We have to see how we get it passed. Maybe we ought to postpone this.

Doesn't interest me, said Peretz, raising his voice. On Sunday you are going to your last government meeting. What you manage to get done, you'll manage to get done. I'm not going to retract any commitments I've made because of 1,000 liters of milk for the cows.

Peres stared in disbelief at the resignation letter with his name at the bottom. I've already scheduled two press conferences next week. With the prime minister and with the finance minister, he muttered. Excuse me, said Peretz suspiciously. About what? One on the issue of poverty and the other about the Negev and the Galilee, replied Peres. You're not participating in any press conferences, Peretz chided him. Maybe you don't understand, but the party is already in a different place. Have you forgotten that I'm opposed to the poverty plan that you and Herzog have proposed? Yes, yes, said Peres. I know. I've already cancelled that press conference. So sign please, ordered Peretz.

Peres couldn't. This was the second time this was being forced on him in three years. In October, 2002, former party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (now national infrastructure minister) pulled Labor out of the government and Peres out of the Foreign Ministry he loves. And now, the nightmare had returned. He sighed, and signed.

Thus, like a tornado, Peretz rushed among the ministers' offices, letters in hand, and had them signed one by one. He did not rely on any secretary. He knew the most assertive secretary in the world would have returned from the mission empty-handed, chastised and humiliated. Two ministers escaped him by fleeing the building: Herzog and Minister Without Portfolio Matan Vilnai. That same evening Peretz sent the letter by messenger to Vilnai's home. Herzog signed a fax and sent it back.

Thus Peretz was able to extricate himself from the situation he had got himself into the previous weekend, when he threatened that if Sharon did not meet with him by Wednesday, the Labor Party would vote for the dissolution of the Knesset. With just the signed letters he can signal to Sharon, the faction heads and his ministers that he is serious.

This episode also taught him a lesson. He took up his position like a rooster at sunrise, with battle cries, bombastic promises ("With me there won't be a single hungry child"), hasty declarations about the justness of Oslo and superfluous statements, like the one excluding a coalition with Sharon but not with the Arabs. During a single week he provided the Likud with the main points of its campaign against him: inexperienced, hasty, extreme leftist, representing economic positions that are obsolete. Opposite him they will put Sharon, the fighter against terror, the statesman who has won international esteem, the disengagement, a man of the center (all this, on the assumption that Sharon remains in the Likud).

Say you are in favor of the road map, one of Peretz's advisers told him. Why mention Oslo? On Sunday Peretz went with Yuli Tamir to meet Bill Clinton at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I have a request of you, said Peretz to Clinton. Explain to the people in Israel that the road map is in fact Oslo's granddaughter. Certainly, said Clinton.

This week has afforded Peretz several insights. After he met with all of the members of the faction, he concluded that they will go with him only if they understand the grass-roots are with him. Therefore, next week he will go out into the field. He does not intend to plead with them to behave nicely. When Amir Peretz joined the party a year ago, he met Vilnai and MK Ephraim Sneh, and asked them naively why they were attacking Peres so hard. You'll see, they said to him, in an hour from now he will call and ask to meet with us. Peretz does not intend to call anyone. Behind his back, his friends in the party are saying of him that he is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Smiling, slapping shoulders, chuckling, but within seconds, when you turn your back, he becomes bullying brute, an eliminator.

'Why the hell do I need this?'Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tired, half-closed eyes surveyed those who were sitting in front of him and beside him on Wednesday in the Likud faction room at the Knesset. "I have come to consult my colleagues," he told the media at the start of the meeting. The people around him smiled. What consultation and what colleagues? For a long while he sat at the head of the table and listened: to MK Benjamin Netanyahu and his advice; to Education Minister Limor Livnat and her sermons; to Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and his conditions, to MK Uzi Landau and MK Ehud Yatom and MK Michael Ratzon, who talked about "reconciliation" and "solidarity" and in the same breath about "the principles of the movement" and "the ideology of the Likud."

Sharon said nothing and smiled his Mona Lisa smile. All the cards were on the table. They, and he, realized that after the elections, after Sharon supplies the goods and carries them on his back into the Knesset, they will tar and feather him and drag him to the Likud Central Committee to make it clear to him that he is just a messenger. A representative of the movement.

"If we had been in a cartoon," observed one of the Knesset members afterwards, "a little balloon would have popped up over Sharon's head with the words: 'Why the hell do I need this.'"

The desire to leave them to their own devices is simmering inside him. At the beginning of the week he met with a senior Likud figure, an important minister. If I leave, will you come with me, he asked. No, replied the minister.

All of the surveys and studies that have been conducted at his behest during the past week, since MK Amir Peretz was elected chairman of the Labor Party, have not shown Sharon anything he didn't already know. In fact, they were a waste of money. Ultimately, he will follow his heart, his instincts and the experience he has accumulated.

If he remains in the Likud, he is assured that in the 17th Knesset he will again be the head of the largest faction. But he won't have a coalition. The Likud, Shinui and the National Religious Party will not have 61 seats among them. Labor headed by Peretz will remain outside the government. Sharon will be between a rock and a hard place, unless Peretz succumbs to the tremendous pressure that will be applied to him. And of course, there will also be rebels. Sharon will find it difficult to carry out dramatic moves, if that is indeed his intention. And all this on the assumption he wins in the primaries.

In the polls he has a handsome majority, but the Likud party membership is a strange creature: On the eve of the referendum on the disengagement among registered party members, Sharon had a majority of 15 percent, which reversed within about a month to 20 percent against him.

The establishment of a new party would release him from the bondage he has had to deal with during the past two years. He will feel like a released prisoner. He will determine his list for the Knesset, not the central committee. Were it up to him, the list would include Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, Minister without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi, Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra, Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson, Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim, MK Roni Bar-On and a few backbenchers from the Likud Knesset faction. Sharon would also like to take Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom with him. Shalom has no such plans. It is doubtful Mofaz will go with him.

Sharon would no doubt embellish the list with a few figures from the outside, such as Avi Dichter, and also bring in some of the Peretz "disappointees" from the Labor Party: Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon and also maybe Communications Minister Dalia Itzik. "We would take in only people who could help us," said one of Sharon's close associates this week. Housing Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor), for example, is high on the list of people close to Sharon. As for Vice Premier Shimon Peres, opinions are divided: Is he an electoral asset, or a burden? This will be Sharon's personal decision. They have been friends for 53 years, but Sharon is a person without sentiments. Ask Likud MK David Levy.

This sounds enchanting and seductive, but there are also disadvantages: Instant parties have failed at the ballot box time after time. The polls are predicting 32 to 33 mandates for a new Sharon party, which ensure him the premiership. But he has no way of knowing whether this is the upper or the lower limit. The question is whether voters from the Labor Party, the Likud and Shinui will flock after him or at the last minute, during the final week, return home. And there is the problem of the organizational infrastructure. There isn't any. The Histadrut labor federation mechanism will work for Peretz. Likud activists will kill themselves for Netanyahu, and who will there be for Arik (Sharon)?

Sign, said PeretzSoldier number 1On Monday former prime minister Ehud Barak met Amir Peretz at Mount Herzl, at the official memorial for Rabin. They sat next to each other. Before that, they talked.

I'm prepared to be your soldier, said Barak. Just tell me what you want me to do. Don't listen to all sorts of gossipers. I'll be glad to meet with you. As far as I'm concerned there is nothing stopping me from cooperating with you and helping you. It's no secret I struggled with all my might so you wouldn't get elected, and I don't retract anything I said, because I spoke the truth but you have been elected and I am a party member and there is no reason I shouldn't help you. You decide.

Peretz hasn't yet decided, he says. And perhaps he has decided and is only pretending to think it over. He knows that if he attaches to himself an experienced statesman, a security-minded person who will make up for what he lacks, it will be to his benefit. But at this stage he prefers that it be Peres. Someone advised him to embrace Barak in a bear hug. I only hug people I love, said Peretz. In the meantime, he has not invited Barak (who was in India this week) for a meeting. The chairman's people are leaving no doubt as to his intentions: Barak is at the top of the hit list.

The personal transformation Barak has undergone during the past year is not trivial. He has returned to the political game with the same arrogance, that same look of "I-know-best-what-is-good-for-you," convinced he would take the party easily. When he realized the gravity of his situation, he withdrew his candidacy and linked up with Peres unconditionally and without recompense. Now, when his bitterest rival has been elected, he is prepared to enlist. He understands the rules of the game: A new chairman is elected and he calls the tune. That is how a party works. That is how the wheel goes round. Sometimes you're up. Sometimes you're down.

Barak is prepared to start from zero, with no preferential treatment, but he has to know Peretz wants this. If it turns out that Peretz's machine - 28,000 registered party members - will work against him in the primaries for the Knesset, he is not going to commit suicide. "Ehud," said his associate Simhon, who also organized Barak's telephone conversation with Peretz the day after the primaries, "will run for the Knesset, but not at knife point from Peretz and his people. If Amir wants to bring him in, it will be possible to arrange that. He has no problem doing Amir's bidding."