Now She May Get Wet

Olmert and Netanyahu believe Tzipi Livni has managed to avoid political rough-and-tumble. Now they may target her

Anyone who happened to come to the Knesset last week - before the start of the spring recess - would have seen a worn-out House, exhausted from the storms that have besieged it. When it reconvenes on May 7, the Knesset will have to contend with the aftermath of the interim report of the Winograd Committee.

So many hopes have been pinned on this report and so many fears are accompanying it. There is no one in the political system who is not concerned with this matter - from the prime minister down to the lowliest official or the most junior of Knesset members. All are awaiting the report with the assumption that it will have a profound effect on their careers.

This past week, however, the prevalent feeling was that the dust had settled somewhat. In the coming weeks, during the holidays, people will have a rest and will store up energy before the big bang: At the end of April there will be the Winograd report and a month later, the elections to the Labor Party leadership. These two events are likely to parachute the entire political system into a whirlwind that will continue for many long months and whose results are extremely difficult to assess.

In any event, the Knesset will remain the same Knesset, but the government will no longer be the same government. The reshuffling of the cabinet ministers that was discussed to a considerable extent is now happening by itself, without Prime Minister Ehud Olmert having to lift a finger; it is a creeping reshuffle. The justice minister has been replaced, there is finally a welfare minister, the defense minister is likely to be replaced in two months' time (even if against all odds, Amir Peretz wins the leadership race, he will not continue holding the defense portfolio), and it seems likely that the finance minister will also be replaced in the near future. The pleasant and agreeable Abraham Hirchson is up to his neck in hot water. Who would ever have believed that the kindly grandfather would be called a mega-swindler by the police, with his bursting envelopes and bag full of rustling notes? Hello! What do we have here? Is this the National Workers' Organization (Histadrut Leumit), or is it the "Sopranos?"

With a new defense minister (Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon) and with a new finance minister (apparently Roni Bar-On), Olmert will have the new start that he he has been yearning for. On condition, of course, that the creeping reshuffle does not swallow him up, too. On Monday of last week, the prime minister met with some 20 editors and commentators from the Russian-language media. He spent more than two hours in their company. They asked him about his "I'm-not-popular" speech.

"We are living in a very unusual era," Olmert told them, "an era in which harsh words and persecution have become among the typical attributes of political culture and the way in which public affairs are conducted. What is important today is not the facts but the image; not the reality but the way in which people try to present the reality. That is why I decided to say: 'Gentlemen, you want to say that I am not popular, right? Okay, I realize that. Now let's begin speaking to the point.'"

He waxed nostalgic about the rating he and the government had had during the time of the Second Lebanon War: 85 percent support. "Now the percentage of support is among the lowest I can remember. It is similar, incidentally, to the percentages of support for [Ehud] Barak or Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu], but that does not comfort me, and that is not a [valid] argument."

Where did you go wrong, they asked him. "I made a mistake when I did not appoint a Russian minister," he said, "and I intend to correct it." (If Bar-On is promoted to the Finance Ministry, Olmert intends to appoint MK Marina Solodkin as a cabinet minister on behalf of Kadima).

He told them how much he felt, sometimes, like telling people what exactly he thought of everyone, and how he prevented himself from doing so. "In this position, there is constantly a temptation to say something or to do something, to get off your chest anything that annoys you. There are quite a few times when you hear something that makes you want to scream, when you see hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness or lack of truth. In such cases, the temptation to respond is great, but I tell myself all the time that I must restrain myself."

He was asked about his relations with the cabinet ministers from Kadima. "I don't deal with the personal angles," he responded, "for the simple reason that there is no situation in which any of the ministers can change my status. Should I waste my time in constantly examining who said what about me to whom, what they meant, and whether a certain minister was nice to me or not?"

Tell us, those present asked him, what is the fun in being a prime minister?

"We already know what it is about the job that is fun," Olmert said. "Now I ask myself what is bad in being prime minister."

To attack or not to attack While Olmert was meeting with members of the Russian press, some of the senior Likud officials were debating what to do about Tzipi Livni. The foreign minister, who also holds the post of vice premier, appears to be the most reasonable candidate to replace Olmert if he is forced to step down, and Likud activists are wondering whether the time has not come to take off their gloves. To attack or not to attack - that is the question. "If we begin to pull her to pieces," one of the leading Likud activists said, "it is clear that she will not last for long. She's not built for that. To a large extent, [her image] is a mere bluff, a product of public relations. She has never had any experience that could prepare her to be a prime minister. If she were to experience 1 percent of what is happening to Olmert in the past few months, she would not be able to stand up to it. Olmert is a hundred times stronger than she is.

"The problem," he continued, "is whether we should wait until she replaces Olmert and wait for the bluff to become obvious then, or to start eroding her position already now. If we make a target of her already at this stage, this will increase her popularity and status. On the other hand, if we wait, maybe it will be too late."

Olmert's close associates were faced with a similar dilemma this week. Following the debate at the Kadima branch on Thursday of the previous week, in which Livni could not find a single word to say in favor of Olmert, his aides began wondering whether the time had not come for them to begin undermining her. The dilemma was soon resolved: No. The time for this had not yet come. Olmert is too deeply involved in too many wars on too many fronts and against too many adversaries. To open up another front against a popular lady, would not be to his benefit.

In private conversations, Olmert employs harsh words against Livni; he says she is trying to hitch a ride and take credit for things to which she has no connection. And, in general, he does not hold her in much esteem, to put it mildly. This, of course, is mutual.

The chairman of the Pensioners' Party, cabinet minister Rafi Eitan, sits in his bureau in the Knesset reconstructing the events of July 12, the day on which the Second Lebanon War broke out. When he heard that two soldiers had been abducted, he felt an urgent need to send a message to Olmert: For two abducted soldiers, you don't start a war. The message got to Olmert, said Eitan: Let's think, who is behind this abduction? Iran. That country is interested that we begin a war in order to distract the attention of the world from its nuclear intentions."

But you supported the war, he was told, you voted in favor of it all along the line. His reply to this is dubious. "That was my opinion when there were two abductees. After that, when eight dead soldiers were added to the list, I changed my mind. There was no choice but to go to war. In retrospect, I say it was our luck that it broke out now, under these circumstances. I had no idea that the Israel Defense Forces had changed its structure, a change which made it difficult to conduct the war; I had no idea that Israel was exposed to high-trajectory weapons and I had no idea that the home front was so exposed. "In my opinion," he adds, "the defense minister also did not have the slightest inkling."

He is of the opinion that the interim Winograd report will not produce a great deal of drama and that the current government will remain intact without the prime minister having to step down. "If the report deals only with the first five days of the war, in my opinion, most of the decisions taken on those days were within pure reason," he says.

The Internet site, "Likudnik", is the informal Web site of the Likud. The movement's activists and the party's Knesset members treat it as if it were a holy site. This is the internal bulletin board for several hundred people: elected officials, wheeler-dealers and those who have aspirations to be elected. Every Likudnik who respects himself goes into the site several times a day to make sure he is up to date. Last Sunday morning, an official invitation to a gathering of volunteers for Netanyahu, to be held that same evening at Metzudat Ze'ev, was posted on the home page. Those participating were requested to send personal details to Netanyahu's email address. In the center of the ad, an eye-catching picture of a placard was displayed, a kind of oblong sticker in whose right corner there was a picture of Netanyahu on a blue background, together with the slogan: "Everything is up to you, friend. Leadership for Israel." The context was clear both from the text and from the design: Yitzhak Rabin.

A Likud member who surfs the Web site regularly, spotted the picture and pointed out the bad joke to Haaretz. Last Wednesday, Netanyahu's spokesman , Ophir Akunis, was asked for his response to the matter. "We didn't know, we didn't see," Akunis said. "Somebody actually said something but we checked only when you called. There is no doubt that that placard is not suitable, does not show sensitivity and is in bad taste." An hour later, the placard was removed from the official invitation of the bureau of the Likud chairman. As of late last week, it could still be seen on an internal page on the site. Netanyahu has many aides, as many as there are pebbles on the beach. It is difficult to believe that, for so many days, none of them saw, none of them heard, none of them noticed so obvious a provocation that was run alongside an official invitation from the bureau. Apparently, no one was disturbed by it. Perhaps someone even found it funny. We have already mentioned that the smell of upcoming power has driven Netanyahu's senses crazy but it is worth his while to calm down. And it is also worthwhile for him and for his bureau aides to demonstrate a little sensitivity and tact.