The Ultimatum / With Elections Just Around the Corner, Barak Takes Charge

Ehud Olmert did not expect that of all people his friend and confidant on diplomatic and security affairs, the man whom he praised for his contribution to negotiations with the Syrians, would be the one to plunge the knife in his back.

Of all people, that man would be the one who to leave him wide open and hasten his political end. Decades of friendship and fruitful cooperation, especially over the past year, ended yesterday with the defense minister's one short statement.

"A knife in the back," is the expression Olmert chose to describe Barak's move.

The prime minister's close associates conveyed scorn for Barak's semi-ultimatum, but that was far from Olmert's feeling. His political senses, his vast experience and the way he sees the battlefield show that his political days are numbered. Weeks, perhaps a few months, no more.

Contrary to most opinions, the political horses will pull out ahead of the legal ones. It is difficult at this point to draw a clear picture of how this will happen - the dust is still swirling over the lost and agitated political system.

But no one yesterday doubted it, including the prime minister's close associates and supporters: It is happening. The elections are around the corner, a matter of six to eight months at the most.

About an hour before Barak's news conference, Olmert made a round of phone calls to most of the Kadima ministers. "Make no mistake; Barak is not innocent; he is not acting out of value-driven motives," Olmert said. "He wants to take Kadima apart. Don't let him; wait until Talansky's cross-examination, things will look different."

It is very possible that Olmert is right about Barak's intentions, but those are the rules of the game: when you see a chance for political gain, do not hesitate. Barak had been putting together his move over the past 10 days, since it became known that Talansky was going to testify.

He summoned ministers and associates and told them that the day after the court testimony, it could no longer be business as usual.

"We are not a third-world country," Barak said yesterday at a meeting of his party's ministers. "If we don't respond, we will convey to the cultured part of the world that such things are reasonble here, part of the norm."

After a year of political limpness and hesitation and poor showings in the polls, yesterday Barak took the lead. He set the system's agenda. He beat out Shas chairman Eli Yishai, who had planned to make his "exit" from the crumbling cabinet by means of child allowances, and he beat out Tzipi Livni, who holds the portfolio of morality and clean hands in Kadima and who preferred, yesterday too, a day after Talansky's testimony, to continue to remain silent.

Livni's silence will now become a burden and not an asset for her. As long as she remained silent and refused to back Olmert up, it was considered a position of "values" or "courage." Now, after Barak has flung the gauntlet at Kadima, and especially at Livni, the deputy prime minister's ongoing silence is no longer an achievement.

Barak said he would prefer an alternative cabinet headed by another individual from Kadima, but it is clear to him that the chances of establishing an alternative cabinet in this Knesset are very slim.

He said this so that his camp, the center-left, would not accuse him of rushing toward elections that might bring Netanyahu and the right to power.

That is the chance Barak took yesterday: that at the beginning of 2009, Netanyahu will sit in the prime minister's chair. But he has no choice, things have gone too disgustingly far.