Olmert's Double

The twin victory of two former prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, in the elections for the leadership of Labor and the presidency, respectively, reaffirmed the iron rules of Israeli politics. The first rule is that political defeat is only the stepping stone for the next campaign. The second is that the correct strategy is to stay in the game until the circumstances are in your favor once more. Ariel Sharon used to say call this "staying on the merry-go-round"; sometimes you fall off, sometimes you get on, but you must never, ever get off.

The third victor in this week's elections is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. First, he proved that if the right sort of effort is made, it is possible that even Peres will win an election. Second, his government is about to undergo a reshuffle, which will overshadow the poor appointments of Amir Peretz to the Defense Ministry and Abraham Hirchson to the Treasury. Third, Olmert has once more exhibited his control over politics. In the milieu of Olmert the soccer fanatic, they spoke yesterday of a "double," used to describe a team that wins both the league championship and the state cup. Only a few weeks ago the prime minister appeared to be dead in the political waters, and on the verge of being toppled in disgrace. Suddenly, the tables have turned.

The candidates he backed have won, and next week he will pay a visit to President George Bush in the White House where he will receive a public embrace, straight into the national news programs. On his return he will present his new government. Olmert ignored the public, which has no love for him, and focused his energies on the politicians, who are wary of new elections and have no alternative leadership. So Olmert wiped the dirt of the Winograd report off his face, quietly put down the rebellion in Kadima, and tightened the alliance with his most loyal ally in the coalition, Shas chairman Eli Yishai.

Olmert's problem is that he does not have a lot of time to celebrate. The waiting periods - until the release of the interim Winograd report, to the Labor primary, to the election of the president, and the appointment of the new ministers - are coming to an end. At its completion the prime minister will have to do what he does not like to do: present the public with a new and convincing agenda that would explain where the country is now heading.

His options are not great. The Syrian track is blocked. The Gaza Strip has turned into Hamastan. It is hard to present Mahmoud Abbas as a convincing partner in a diplomatic solution, following the blow he received in the Strip. The national mood will only grow darker in view of the security threats, in the north, the south and the east - in Ir an.

But the Hamas takeover in Gaza has a positive aspect for Olmert: there is no chance Bush will present a new initiative with the Palestinians during their meeting in 10 days. Olmert said this week that he is leaning toward a policy of containment in the Gaza Strip. If the West is concerned over the implications of the Hamas takeover, then they are welcome to deal with it with an international force. There are supporters of the idea in the government, Avigdor Lieberman chief among them. The left will also give its backing.