Mr. Clean and Mr. Spin

"My words were crystal clear - I will not be part of Olmert's government," said Knesset Member Ami Ayalon in response to estimates made by the prime minister's camp. The prime minister's supporters contend that when the time comes, Ayalon won't forgo an opportunity to gain ministerial experience - even in a government led by someone he thinks should assume personal responsibility.

Two days before the Winograd Committee's interim conclusions were published, Ayalon said he would not rule out sitting in Olmert's government in order to prevent Netanyahu from coming to power. This was a mistake, perhaps his most significant one throughout his campaign for Labor Party leadership. When the committee's conclusions turned out to be worse than he had imagined, Ayalon was forced to retract his statement. Meanwhile, his main political opponent, Ehud Barak, turned this zigzaging into a weapon. Two further embarrassing incidents were later recorded in his campaign, and Ayalon appeared to be losing focus.

An Ayalon supporter, General (reserve) Amiram Levin, called Israel Defense Forces soldiers "shits" in an interview with Ma'ariv, and diagnosed Barak as mentally ill. In an attempt at damage control, Levin said his statements reflected his own personal opinion, although Yuval Porat, Ayalon's campaign manager, was the contact person for the interview, and was also reportedly present at the time. Porat refused to comment.

A third incident took place earlier this week when a Kol Israel reporter recorded Ayalon calling Netanyahu a "pathological liar." The publicity cracked the no-nonsense image Ayalon had been trying to uphold; some Laborites speculated that it was intentional and designed to do away with his "soft nerd" image. In this way, Ayalon is seen as a "killer" who can face Netanyahu on equal terms. Barak's camp was quick to use this angle, and said that "Mr. Clean became Mr. Spin." But for the time being, these events do not seem to affect polls. Ayalon's candidacy is strong and he remains neck and neck with Barak; in a second voting round, if there should be one, he is even expected to defeat Barak.

The day before yesterday, on his way home from conferences at Afikim and Geva, Ayalon suggested that Barak's camp may have planted the reporter at the conference, and did not seem overly agitated by it. "It was a harsh statement and I regret it," he says, "but I don't deny it. You are less careful with your words when attending a closed forum. I am not proud of it. This kind of statement should not be characteristic of Israeli political discourse. But I cannot deny making it, and I cannot deny it is my opinion."

Ayalon also does not distance himself from Levin: "Amiram spoke his heart. He knows Ehud [Barak] better than most in Israel. I cannot support everything he said, but that was him being honest. Whoever thinks I was the one sending him and speaking through him is probably not familiar with Amiram."

Levin's mission, self-appointed or otherwise, is central to the campaign: He brought Barak's problematic character to the table - a self-centered individual who abandons his loyalists without thinking twice. Levin was intended to be the "smart bomb" in the battle between Barak and Ayalon, but when Ayalon's camp opened the paper, they saw a loud headline about IDF soldiers, and Barak's character was pushed aside. Despite this incident, Ayalon's camp believes the mission was at least partly accomplished. They believe Barak's camp is anxious, judging from "various threats we receive."

If there is one thing Ayalon regrets, it is his early response to the conclusions of the Winograd Committee. He admits it was a mistake, but not one that would determine the primaries. "I thought I knew what the report said," he says. "I believed I knew everything, and I did not know what I know today of the decision-making process in the government. After reading the report, I realize that from now on, the prime minister will be mostly busy surviving."

If Ayalon wins and keeps his word after the primaries, the political system may spiral in a short time, perhaps resulting in elections: Olmert may continue his survival attempts with a fragmented coalition, and not step aside to make way for someone else in Kadima. The possibility of a Barak victory, who also declared he would work toward bringing about early elections and that Olmert's days in power were numbered, is troubling for Olmert.

Of all candidates, Labor Chairman and Defense Minister Amir Peretz provides Olmert with a sort of insurance policy. Their common destiny, bound during the Second Lebanon War, will not allow Peretz to claim Olmert unfit to be prime minister.

Conspiracy theories

Vice Premier Shimon Peres' days are split between hope and desperation, as he examines his chances of becoming president. It is a month before elections, and Peres is still delaying his official announcement. In the meantime he is torn between advisers who recommend that he not run, including Eyal Arad, and others who encourage him to try again, including publicist Reuven Adler.

Arad thinks that Peres, with his public and international standing, should not go through the humiliation of a campaign, for which victory will not come easily. Adler says Peres has a good chance of winning, since, according to his calculations, none of the candidates have an absolute majority.

Adler's involvement has recently led to a new conspiracy theory, according to which Adler is sending Peres to the presidency to clear the way for Tzipi Livni, with whom he is also affiliated and who is also vying to be prime minister. Adler says he's heard about the theory, it's a fine theory but it does not hold any weight. Peres is meeting this week with Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, who is pushing him to make a decision. Itzik will run if Peres decides not to, but in the meantime her hands are tied. Make up your mind already, she told him. If you say you're running, we will all be behind you. But Peres is suspicious of her, and she, in turn, feels hurt by his tests of loyalty. Sources in Peres' circle have reported that he is almost decided on running, but needs more time to reduce the degree of uncertainty. This is progress, considering his "I am not concerned by it" statement, which he has used often when asked if he is running for president.