Vilnai's Miscalculation

The most frightening promise Shimon Peres made this week to Matan Vilnai was for "a long-term partnership." Since Peres does not intend to be the junior partner in the pair, his long-term plans cannot excite Vilnai. As a maneuver to outflank Ehud Barak, who was openly striving to become Peres' candidate for the defense portfolio, Vilnai may have used up most of his current power. As Peres' deputy, Vilnai could increase his chances in a future race against a young man (currently) considered more popular in Labor, Ophir Pines-Paz. Thus, looking ahead. But if he looks back he'll see two who preceded him with the same false formula of a defense portfolio in a Peres government, and only one - Yitzhak Rabin, who had already been prime minister - who managed to turn that position into a launching pad for the head of the party and the government.

Like Rabin and Vilnai, Yigal Allon and Haim Bar-Lev went to politics directly from the army - commander of the Palmach and the southern front in 1948, and the Israel Defense Forces eighth chief of staff, respectively. In 1977, after he was twice deterred from running for prime minister - in the wake of Levi Eshkol's death and Golda Meir's resignation - Allon gave up the chance to run against Peres for the puny political inheritance left by Rabin, who resigned a few weeks before the national elections. In exchange for his agreement to leave Peres the leadership role, Alon received a note in which he was promised any ministry he wanted in Peres' government. The only fault in this promise was Peres' loss to Menachem Begin. A Pole doesn't visit friends with empty hands, even if the bonbon he brought was passed around without being opened.

The next winner of a Peres defense ministry promise was Bar-Lev, who also saw the Promised Land from afar but never reached it. On the eve of the 1981 elections, when the polls showed Peres could win if his candidate for defense minister was Rabin, Bar-Lev was shoved aside.

Now it is Vilnai's turn. He already was a little bit of an Allon for Peres, in 1996, as deputy chief of staff who reckoned that Peres would promote him to chief of staff once he beat Benjamin Netanyahu. Now he could find out that Peres won't hesitate to Bar-Lev him, if the polls leading up to the election show that the way to improve Labor's chances is to throw Vilnai out of the defense ministry slot and hand it over to Barak.

Allon, Bar-Lev, Rabin, Barak and Vilnai - after 60 years in politics, Peres still needs a chief of staff (first in the series was Moshe Dayan) or a general (his divided government with Yitzhak Shamir was put together with the help of Ezer Weizman and Ariel Sharon). After all the wars and governments, he still has to make up for his mistake in 1948 when he preferred to remain a civilian - under David Ben-Gurion and not the chief of staff - instead of taking a lieutenant colonel's rank like other Mapai activists such as Pinchas Sapir, Avraham Ofer and Lova Eliav.

Since the Six-Day War, nearly none of the civilian candidates of the large parties dared to run for prime minister without a general at his side. The only exception was Shamir, who had reservations about the leadership abilities of the IDF commanders. In the last two elections, it was military men against each other - Barak versus Sharon and Sharon against Aram Mitzna. When Peres wants to win, he doesn't promise that his partner in leadership is Amir Peretz, as the candidate for finance minister, but he reinforces himself with a general tipped for the defense ministry.

Like Barak recommending Peres last month, Vilnai is gambling on a Peres loss to Sharon or Netanyahu and making do with the title of deputy to the king, which would leave the defense ministry in Vilnai's hands. The hole in Vilnai's calculation is that Peres might ruin things for him, win the elections and then give the defense portfolio to the Likud.