What Are These Elections About Anyway?

Shimon Peres was agitated. He sat in his office in the old Templer building (since demolished) on Arenia Street in Tel Aviv's Kirya government compound. "Here on this chair sat Yitzhak Navon. We talked off the record and he divulged it all and caused a lot of damage," Peres said. At the time, in the spring of 1990, Peres was Labor Party chairman, and he had failed to bring down prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in what became known as the "dirty trick."

Navon, a former president who at one time had harbored hopes of succeeding Peres, heard from Peres - and later made it very public - that when the day comes, not to say when the Messiah comes, Peres would hand over the party reins to either Maj.-Gen. Ehud Barak or author Amos Oz. Peres did not really intend to pass on his crown, but his naming as a possible successor embarrassed deputy chief of staff Barak and jeopardized his chances of being appointed chief of staff by Shamir and defense minister Moshe Arens.

Peres went rightward and upward, to Kadima and the presidency. Oz went left. Only Barak remained in the middle, the scion of a ruling dynasty that has been rendered impoverished. Barak's real fight isn't for the premiership, but for surviving in both his positions, defense minister and Labor Party chairman, the day after the Knesset election. This fight has been helped by his abandonment by Ami Ayalon, who will not be there to compete against him after the defeat. But that's cold comfort.

Benjamin Netanyahu is anxious to leave behind Barak, his commander in the Sayeret Matkal special-operations force and the politician who knocked him off the prime minister's chair in a very personal duel. One of the two will benefit from the sea change in the balance of power, and in the balance of subordination.

That will be the jewel in Netanyahu's crown, modeled after Menachem Begin in 1977, the spurned leader of the Etzel and Herut who enjoyed seeing underneath him the dream team, albeit slightly faded, of retired top brass Yigal Yadin and Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon and Meir Amit - and most of all Moshe Dayan, who ended up in the Foreign Ministry, courtesy of Labor.

Netanyahu, a rich-man's Begin, surpassed his teacher: He already has a dream team even before the election, even if, in keeping with the times, in an abridged version. Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, Uzi Dayan and Assaf Hefetz - all have sworn him fealty, and when Netanyahu conducts cabinet meetings he will look right at the defense minister sitting across from him, Barak.

To keep his job Barak will have to keep himself from being deposed from his party's leadership, eight years after he lost to Ariel Sharon, sought to serve under him as defense minister and was removed due to pressure from Haim Ramon (who afterword lured Amram Mitzna into promising not to serve in Sharon's government, contributed to Mitzna's defeat and joined up with Sharon himself).

Barak needs Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon, the senior Laborites for whom he will save places at the top of the party election list - not to attract undecideds but to support him after the fall. Otherwise he will join Netanyahu as a personal appointment, as a Labor MK or not, to lead the perilous operation against a nuclearizing Iran, as Dayan justified his desertion to Begin's ranks to lead the peace process with Egypt.

If the election ends in a draw between the main blocs, implementing this scenario will be conditioned on Likud, headed by Netanyahu, having one MK more than Kadima headed by Tzipi Livni. If not, Peres will give Livni the first chance to form a government, also with Barak as defense minister.

The main election issue is therefore whether the prime minister will be Netanyahu, with Livni as deputy prime minister and foreign minister, or vice versa (with an option for Netanyahu to be finance minister instead). Despite the high-flown language, the arguments will be over nuances, not substance. Both candidates for prime minister will shy away from making tough decisions and bearing responsibility for their consequences. They will act like an insurance company that sells policies to its clients but insures itself with a reinsurer.

Thus, despite the propaganda about how critical this election is, the voting will be personal and perhaps personality-based; it will only dictate who will be the one to summon Defense Minister Barak to deliberations. Netanyahu failed as prime minister and succeeded, if he succeeded, when he had a prime minister above him who supported his actions. If he is fated to be in the top team, it would be better if he were not number one.