Up the Down Staircase

A thin wall separates the defense minister's office from Shimon Peres' abandoned office on the cabinet floor of the Knesset. On Monday afternoon, one defense minister sat on either side of the wall, as incoming minister Ehud Barak took over Peres' office and outgoing minister Amir Peretz remained in his. Slowly, Peretz was stripped of the symbols of authority. The staff of aides and spokespeople miraculously fell away; the number of security guards dropped from three to one. But several hours before the Knesset voted on Barak's appointment, Peretz was still defense minister. He was in charge. He looked for the ministry's chief of staff, Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Michael Herzog.

"Mike!," Peretz called, "Mike!" Mike didn't answer. Peretz went out to the hallway. "Where's Mike?" he asked. With Barak, he was told.

"What's going on here?" Peretz asked, an insulted expression crossing his face. "I'm still the defense minister. Call him."

Herzog was summoned. Later, Peretz gave a farewell speech to the Knesset plenum. It was a long one. "He thinks he's Fidel Castro," Likud back-benchers complained. In a departure from common practice, nearly all Labor MKs were present; Peretz's party colleagues previously tended to leave him to face the opposition's scorn on his own. This time the Laborites came to hear Peretz eulogize himself and to make sure he was really leaving.

The Knesset has seen a lot of turnover. Ministers come and go endlessly, but such a prominent contrast between a minister and his replacement is rare. A collective sigh of relief issued from the Knesset when Barak's appointment was confirmed; even those who voted against it rushed to shake his hand afterward. It is true that he poses a political threat to two large parties; Kadima and Likud; and that many people do not really like him (not even his party colleagues), but everyone realizes how crucial his appointment is at this time. There will be time for political account-settling later. Indeed, the first signs of it could be seen last Monday in the Knesset, when the first sentence Barak uttered in the overcrowded Labor chambers was: "I hope that soon we will take over the larger room; that of Kadima."

Kadima MKs were insulted. They had awaited the arrival of Barak the savior for months, and before he even takes his seat at the cabinet table he is informing them that he wants to take over. Barak's comment touched the most sensitive nerves of the Kadima MKs. They realize that by bringing Barak into the cabinet, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is buying himself some political quiet, for at least six months or a year. But while Olmert is thinking about short-term survival, they are already thinking about the next term. The more successful Barak is, the worse off they are, since swing voters will switch to Labor. If Barak fails and the government topples, however, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will be the winner. Either way, Kadima loses. Kadima MKs feel like the class runt who gets teased and hit all the time. The bullies take his sandwich and threaten to take his lunch money the next day.

MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, Olmert's most vocal opponent within Kadima, expressed this week what quite a few of his fellow Kadima MKs say about their party leader off the record. "It's clear that Kadima isn't important to Olmert," Yitzhaki said. "What's important to him is Ehud Olmert and how long he will retain his seat. Olmert could appoint MK Marina Solodkin to the cabinet now, but he will not because he doesn?t care about the Russian sector. If in another few months he sees that he has no chance of being reelected in Kadima, he'll do what Barak wants: merge Kadima and the Pensioners with the Labor Party and give Barak his own place, while asking to be his No. 2."

One could dismiss Yitzhaki's comments as not being objective, but his remarks echo those made last week by a Kadima minister who is not thought to holding any grudge against Olmert. "If there's a situation where the polls say that Barak would bring a united Kadima-Labor bloc unequivocal victory over Netanyahu and that Olmert wouldn't, I don't rule out a scenario in which Labor and Kadima merge," the minister said in a dry, informative tone. "Four or five of our people go to Likud, four or five go home, Barak is our candidate for prime minister and Olmert and Barak reach an agreement that Olmert becomes finance or foreign minister after the elections."

Give me peaceFormer prime minister Ariel Sharon used to say that "the most important thing is quiet." And that's precisely what both Olmert and Barak want right now. Olmert wants to enjoy the brief grace period his second government will grant him. Barak needs this time to put a positive stamp on the military establishment while carrying the Labor Party and preparing it for general elections.

As of last week, Olmert is in a unique position: He appears to be the only prime minister in a Western democratic country two of whose senior ministers have publicly called on him to resign. So they said it, so what? The foreign minister said it and stayed on, and the defense minister said it and joined his cabinet.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rushed to invite Barak to her office on Tuesday morning, about two hours after he was sworn in at the Defense Ministry, "to update him on the political matters that are on the agenda."

"What's the rush?" Olmert's people wanted to know. Maybe Tzipi wants to claim Barak for herself, they speculated. Maybe she realizes that in her dismal situation it is worth joining up with him in a partnership that, when the day comes, will work to topple Olmert.

The frenzy that took hold of the political system did not skip over Netanyahu. Until the moment Olmert and Barak reached a deal on the latter?s appointment, Netanyahu's aides still hoped for a hitch that would cause Olmert to offer the defense portfolio to Netanyahu instead. The Likud leader would unequivocally have accepted such an offer. After all, there is no shortage of excuses, such as the Iranian threat. But Netanyahu would have joined the cabinet primarily to block his main rival, Barak, and keep him in the opposition desert knowing that because the Labor chairman is not an MK, he could not even be opposition leader. But the offer never came, the dream vanished, and Netanyahu went off to the United States with a sour taste in his mouth.

What a tangled web is being weaved around Barak. The man who had been so ostracized and reviled turned overnight into someone everyone wants to get close to. A Labor Party initiative is underway to cancel the party chairmanship race scheduled to take place a few months before the general elections, which would be a heaven-sent gift for Barak. While he would get to enjoy a quiet time within the party and establish himself in the Defense Ministry, the Likud is getting ready for an out-and-out race between Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom and wallow in mudslinging for months, and Kadima is in deep trouble, saddled with an unpopular prime minister who is haunted by a war probe and criminal investigations. For Barak, it seems that glad tidings, like troubles, come in threes."It's impossible to have a primary every year," said MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who raised the idea of canceling the next race during a Labor MK meeting. "You have to let the chairman work while knowing that he is our candidate for prime minister."

Pines-Paz, a Barak supporter whom the Labor leader has designated as justice minister in a future Barak government, said he did not raise the proposal at Barak's behest.

"This is my well-known position, which I stated during my campaign as well," said Pines-Paz, who was one of several candidates who had run against Barak as party chairman. Pines-Paz said the proposal was well-received among the Labor ranks.

Although the idea met with a stentorian silence from MK Ami Ayalon, who faced off against Barak in the primary runoffs, Ayalon met with Pines-Paz the day after the faction meeting to tell him he would support the initiative. Peretz has yet to indicate his position on the matter.

Perhaps he's waiting to see what he'll get from the two Ehuds this week.Barak's advisers are split on whom to invite to the inner circle; should they ask Ayalon or Peretz to fill Eitan Cabel's seat in the cabinet, which he quit after the preliminary Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War came out? Giving Peretz a social-welfare portfolio would give Barak some of the quiet he hopes for within his party. Ayalon has no real political power, and his being outside of the cabinet is unlikely to hurt Barak. On the other hand, Ayalon did get 48 percent of the votes in the party primary, and letting Peretz in while leaving Ayalon on the outside would be a slap in the face to his voters.

"The pendulum is swinging toward Peretz," a source close to Barak said last week. ?He wants to get in and wants to stay, and he clearly hinted to Barak that if he is taken care of nicely, he won't place obstacles before the new chairman.? But another Barak aides took the opposite stance.

"The pendulum is swinging toward Ami," he said. "Not because we don't understand the advantage of having Amir join, but because of another reason altogether: Making Amir a 'social' minister will be a declaration of war on Histadrut [labor federation] Chairman Ofer Eini. Eini helped us out and fought for us, and it could be that without him we wouldn't have won. His people have told us explicitly: Leave Amir outside! We can't ignore them."