The Coalition / Ehud vs. Ehud

It was an important political event: Ehud Barak, a leading candidate for the Labor Party leadership, broke his silence, urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign and threatened him with early elections. But the background gave the event the appearance of a children's television show: A grandfather with a baby face sat at an improvised desk, surrounded by houseplants, while behind him, children chewed gum and licked popsicles, and even as he was sticking another knife into the battered premier, a tiny dog and two infants wandered in.

The location and the accessories were chosen hastily, but the message was carefully crafted. Labor Party members who are sick of Olmert heard an unequivocal statement: 1. Olmert must resign. 2. If he has not done so by May 29, the day after Labor's leadership primary, Barak will work for early elections. 3. If early elections are called, Barak will agree to serve as defense minister until they take place. It had everything: a moral demand for Olmert's resignation, a practical political step to achieve this and a display of national responsibility. Yet Labor ministers who are reluctant to give up their cabinet seats could also be moderately pleased: Unlike his main rival, Ami Ayalon, Barak will let them remain in the cabinet while he stays outside and works to bring about early elections. That, it must be confessed, is a rather bizarre situation, with a potential for political and parliamentary chaos.

Effectively, Barak yesterday tightened the noose that the Winograd Committee placed around Olmert's neck. Granted, his mild tone created the impression that perhaps he did not really mean what he was saying - that he might back down if he won the primary, just as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni did. But if Barak keeps his promise and refuses to join the government, this, sooner or later, will lead to either early elections or Olmert's ouster by his Kadima Party colleagues and replacement by Shimon Peres. Barak hinted clearly yesterday that he would prefer the latter. So, presumably, would most of the Knesset, which is in no hurry to dissolve itself.

Barak's aides were adamant last night that he serve as defense minister only under a prime minister other than Olmert or in a government that is heading toward early elections. And what if Barak does not manage to muster a majority for early elections? A good question, his aides responded. In that case, one can imagine Barak giving a speech like the following: "I tried, but the Knesset is not ready for elections at this time. And security matters take precedence over everything. Therefore, I have decided to join the Olmert government."

Olmert's people did not like Barak's speech. Until a week ago, they viewed Barak as a savior - someone who would take over the Defense Ministry the day after winning the primary and become the centerpiece of a "second Olmert government" that would rescue the premier from his troubles. Now, however, the situation looks more complicated. Barak, on the eve of the primary, is only interested in what is good for Barak. Perhaps Olmert wonders what would have happened had he used his substantial power last spring to bring Barak into his government. Maybe everything would have been different: the Lebanon War, and also his current battle for survival.