The Meeting / Uncomfortable Alliance

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won his first battle against the Winograd report yesterday: He extracted a renewed declaration of allegiance to "a government headed by Olmert" from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Their vow to work together "to advance the diplomatic process" should not be taken too seriously; there will be no amity, respect or cooperation between Olmert and his deputy. But for now, their joint interest in remaining in harness together has overcome their differences, their personal rivalry and the public pressure for Olmert's ouster.

Olmert survived this time because weighty political interests favor his staying in office. Many politicians view Olmert as a place-holder - someone holding onto the premiership for them until they are strong enough to run against Benjamin Netanyahu. Their behavior indicates that they agree with Olmert's view that his resignation would lead to elections and a Likud victory.

Ehud Barak wants to rehabilitate his public image via a stint as defense minister before taking on Netanyahu. The broader left needs time to produce a convincing candidate. The upcoming Labor Central Committee meeting will be the first real contest between those who favor leaving Olmert in place and those who want him out.

Similar considerations motivate senior Kadima ministers who view themselves as candidates to succeed Olmert. Most prefer to await the Winograd Committee's final report, which might topple Olmert without an internal party fight. Meanwhile, Livni has lost ground, while Shimon Peres must soon decide whether to run for president or await Olmert's downfall and hope to inherit the premiership.

Olmert's suppression of the rebellion gives him precious time in power. The question is how he will use it. It is hard to get the public excited over "implementing the Winograd recommendations." His announcement yesterday that the diplomatic-security cabinet will meet every two to three weeks contributes to good governance, but will not boost his approval ratings. The same is true of the staff shake-up proposed by some of his external advisers.

In talks with ministers over the last few days, Olmert has hinted at a diplomatic breakthrough. It is not clear whether he has a real rabbit up his sleeve, or if he is merely trying to buy time by creating an atmosphere of progress. What is clear is that he believes in a diplomatic remedy for his troubles. Yesterday, he asked the visiting Slovenian foreign minister to take a message to Riyadh. Perhaps he still hopes to persuade the Saudi king to agree to a joint photo op.