Empathy and Antipathy

As the building freeze draws to a close, the war of the Ehuds has revived old ghosts: Barak's attempt to cut short the Gaza offensive and his flirtation with Kadima

For 10 months they have been dreaming about this moment. At midnight tonight the end of the construction freeze will arrive. Hours earlier, on the grounds of the settlement Revava in the West Bank, settlers will stage the play "The End of the Freeze" with the participation of "thousands of Likudniks" and "dozens of earth-moving machines," as described in the invitation sent to the media by Likud MK Danny Danon.

If the magic formula is not found in the coming days for a compromise on the freeze that is preoccupying the best minds in New York, Washington and Jerusalem, Israel is liable to find itself diplomatically isolated and in confrontation with its best friends on the only issue for which there isn't a single sympathetic ear in the world: the settlements.

Olmert/Barak cartoon - Amos Biederman - Spet. 26, 2010
Amos Biederman

Just as the ideological right has been waiting for September 26, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been hoping that the day would never come. His courageous behavior in agreeing to freeze construction in the West Bank is about to evaporate into thin air. If the Palestinians don't break up the talks, it will be due to American pressure and perhaps a substantial diplomatic payment they will receive from Netanyahu.

Netanyahu and his associates went out of their way this week to divert attention from the melting construction freeze. His office has also been busy issuing all kinds of political-diplomatic spin: All of a sudden MK Ofir Akunis, Netanyahu's former spokesman, came up with an "initiative" for a referendum on the final status agreement. The spin was tossed into the center of public discourse and the media swooped on it. Netanyahu did his part, adding some twigs to the fire, as planned in advance, by making general statements to the effect of "I haven't decided yet."

People who have met Netanyahu recently describe him as being painfully aware of his situation and the diplomatic, security, political and coalition consequences. On the one hand, he is described as "the strongest prime minister" to serve here in recent decades; on the other hand, if he is so strong, why is he always on the defensive and resisting pressure?

"Do you really think that the business of the construction freeze will pass quietly, only because you don't hear unequivocal declarations from Washington on the subject every day?" wondered a senior American diplomat who met recently with an Israeli friend. "You don't understand: We're observing Netanyahu through a magnifying glass, more than anyone else. We really enjoyed hearing him in the White House, but we're very suspicious of him."

"What do you want?" asked the Israeli.

"A public declaration that construction will not be renewed. Or a verbal promise," the diplomat replied.

In the festive photo that adorned the front page of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth on the eve of Yom Kippur, former prime minister Ehud Olmert was seen sitting at his desk, presumably at work on his lethal autobiography. The author has a serious expression on his face. Has the man who had a pen collection worth thousands of dollars suddenly switched from Mont Blanc to Pilot? It looks like the work of a skilled media consultant.

Actually it isn't. They legendary pen collection was sold a while ago (perhaps in order to pay his lawyers' fees ). The addiction to fountain pens has been replaced by an addiction to gadgets: various iPhones, Blackberries and iPods. And this is a man who up to a year ago did not even have an e-mail address.

And he has another addiction - the elimination of Defense Minister Ehud Barak as a politician, as a national figure, as "Mr. Security." He is taking revenge against Barak not only because of his ousting as prime minister, which Barak initiated and promoted after the Talansky affair, but also for a year and a half of bitter rivalry, intense hatred and almost daily quarrels - only a small fraction of which were leaked in real time. As one of the leading members of Labor said this week, "Why don't we want to defend Barak? First, because most of the things Olmert is writing are true; and second, because we were caught between the two, scorched in the fire of resentment, the passions, the lack of trust. For us the book is not the beginning of a war but a continuation."

To sum up conversations with several ministers in the previous cabinet, Barak found it difficult to accept Olmert's authority, although the two were very close friends for decades and Olmert was considered a fan of Barak's who helped him to oust Netanyahu in the 1999 election.

The question "Who's the boss?" characterizes the relations between the two when Barak found himself defense minister in Olmert's government. During that period Barak functioned not only as "defense prime minister" but also as acting foreign minister, as he is doing now with Netanyahu's permission and authorization.

Last week a minister in the previous cabinet described a bizarre situation that typified those days: "Dozens of people were working non-stop to extinguish the fires between them, contain the quarrels, make constant attempts to pacify, calm them, conceal. Among them were people from business circles, mutual friends of the two, who really worked at it: Benny Steinmetz, Alfred Akirov, Eli Zohar, Eitan Haber. There were politicians: Labor ministers Shalom Simhon, Benjamin (Fuad ) Ben-Eliezer and Isaac (Buji ) Herzog, and MKs such as Yoram Marciano who were constantly running between the hail of bullets. There were official circles: cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel, military secretaries, staff heads and media consultants, who were forced to deal with some blowup or other on an almost daily basis.

"Good people, public servants, suffered chest pains because of the nightmare they experienced. It started with professional issues and then became personal, and then it turned insane: Every word that either of them said made the other angry. Every time either of them would travel abroad and say something, the other would go off the deep end. They couldn't agree on anything. Olmert would crush Barak in the cabinet, while Barak would mockingly describe him as a 'sophisticated lawyer.' Does Olmert write that Barak dozed at meetings? It's true. Barak did things deliberately in order to demonstrate his low opinion of Olmert."

When Olmert claims that Barak held contacts behind his back with foreign ministers about a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, he is referring to the affair involving Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister. "One day," says Olmert, "I get a phone call from [French President Nicholas] Sarkozy. That was a few days after the start of Operation Cast Lead. 'We're accepting Barak's proposal,' Sarkozy told me. 'What proposal?' I asked him. 'The proposal for a cease-fire that he submitted to Kouchner,' Sarkozy told me.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Olmert told Sarkozy, and picked up the phone to Barak. That's how he discovered what was at the time called a "humanitarian cease-fire" that Barak wanted to promote in order to stop the operation.

The most fascinating story relates to an operation, one of those "courageous security efforts," as Olmert described it in his speech this week. Several months earlier Barak had entered the Defense Ministry, to Olmert's satisfaction, after defeating Amir Peretz in Labor Party primaries. The operation was supposed to be carried out shortly afterward, but was postponed due to Barak's opposition.

Those were the days between the reports - between the partial Winograd Committee report, which had been submitted two months earlier, and the full report. The prevailing assessment was that Olmert would have no choice but to resign when Winograd and his colleagues completed their work. Barak, say associates of Olmert and Peretz, wanted to postpone the operation because he believed that the final report would be lethal, Olmert would go home and then he, as defense minister, would conduct the operation and reap the glory, thus paving his path to the premiership. That is one of the things to which Olmert refers in his mention of "an irresponsible defense minister."

Unenthusiastic friends

This version has been recounted in the past to Barak, who scornfully rejected it. It will be interesting to see how far Olmert will go in his book regarding these explosive issues.

Olmert is pleased with the agenda that he has created surrounding Barak. He is probably less satisfied with the discussion that has begun regarding him: Once again he has been accused of being arrogant, resentful, argumentative, quick to anger, spoiling for a fight, hasty and impulsive even on security matters (although he has not violated any censorship laws ). At a time when he is standing trial for a series of serious crimes, it's not certain that firing in all directions for our holiday entertainment is in his best interest.

An opposite theory has it that Olmert is trying to signal the legal system by emphasizing his leftist tendencies, his far-reaching willingness to achieve a peace treaty. "I gave 200 streets in Jerusalem ... I yielded sovereignty in the Holy Basin ... I'm the first prime minister to recognize the refugee problem," he said in last week's address to a Geneva Accord conference.

Barak has thus far refrained from a detailed response, in his own voice, to the accusations against him. At some point he will be forced to respond. What will we recall about Barak from this entire ugly saga? That he opposed the attack against Syria and asked to join Kadima after it was formed. Barak vehemently denies the second claim (he ignores the first ), but he has apparently forgotten. One of those who can help him remember is Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor (Likud ). That night in early January 2006, when Sharon sank into a coma, Barak called him and suggested: "Let's both go to Ehud and offer to join him."

A defense minister and party chairman is attacked and vilified, and none of his "friends" comes to his defense with the exception of his own Weizman Shiri and finally, with a blatant lack of enthusiasm, his deputy in the Defense Ministry, Matan Vilnai. And Benjamin Netanyahu, who issued a statesmanlike declaration during a tour of the south.

Barak, who spent the holiday in New York, probably came across a photo of Olmert's heartwarming meeting with Herzog and Simhon, two of the silent Labor ministers. They met on the eve of the holiday in the bleachers of the Hapoel Gilboa-Galil basketball team, which was playing against the Serbian team Hemofarm Vrsac.

"It's nothing more than a picture that was blown out of all proportion," says Herzog, "a perfectly natural situation of people who haven't seen each other for a while and have been friendly for a long time. We joked about the fact that they had put him next to us in the bleachers."

Nu, and to the point?

"The truth is that it doesn't suit us to get involved in the ugly accusations between the two Ehuds. We can't tolerate another conflict between the two, as we have in recent years. It's worn us down completely."

And if you could have said something to Olmert?

"That was impossible amid the shrieking of the fans. But I would have told him: My friend, it's no secret that I am very critical of Barak for being responsible for the Labor Party's difficult situation. But I don't think the timing for drawing a knife was suitable, just when we in the national leadership are making a supreme effort to get the negotiations moving and move toward a final status agreement that you started, and during a week when the defense minister is in the United States trying to find a way out of the settlement freeze crisis."