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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a week in which the anniversary of the Second Lebanon War was marked, the leaders of the three largest parties dug trenches in an effort to fortify themselves for the political battles ahead.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu each took steps to strengthen their hold over the parties they head. All three executed their plans successfully and all three used the same pretext: the imminent release of the final draft of the Winograd Commission's report on the war.
The report and its ensuing political ramifications could emerge anywhere from the end of August to the beginning of November, and until it does, the politicians will have a ready excuse to justify every move they make and cloud their real objectives.
Thanks to Winograd, this week saw the return of Haim Ramon to the cabinet, the initiation of early elections in the Likud, the cancellation of another Labor primary and the passage of a proposal for Labor to leave the government as soon as the report comes out. The fear of the report silenced potential opponents of the moves, allowing the party chairmen to act unencumbered.
In closed conversations, Olmert refers to Ramon as his "soul mate." And in fact, Olmert requires Ramon to save his soul politically.
Olmert lost an experienced and respected political operator this week when cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon left his job. Unlike former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who had a ranch full of advisers, Olmert has Maimon's expected successor, Ovad Yehezkel, and not much else.
Ramon will be entrusted with making the moves necessary for Olmert to survive political battles before, during and after Winograd and stay in power as long as possible. His lack of a defined job description will free Ramon of responsibilities that would have gotten in the way of his main role as Olmert's life preserver.
In the near future, expect Ramon to meet with United Torah Judaism's rabbis in an effort to persuade them to let the faction's six MKs join the coalition. Without such a move, Barak could remove his 19 MKs, leaving a vulnerable minority coalition of 59 MKs. If UTJ joins, the defense minister would be disarmed of his most volatile weapon, and he would have to become a more loyal soldier in the government.
Another essential step for Ramon will be to block the formation of a gang of Kadima rebels. The list of the most overtly anti-Olmert Kadima MKs includes former coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki, Marina Solodkin, Majallie Whbee, Ze'ev Elkin, Shai Hermesh and new MK Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael.
Stretching the definition would allow the inclusion of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and newly appointed Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit. Even without including other MKs who have kept their criticism more private, that's already more than a third of the faction and a major threat to Olmert.
Olmert and Ramon will have a difficult decision to make next week about whether to appoint deputy ministers and whom to appoint as coalition chairman and to head the Knesset House and Science committees to avoid making new enemies. Olmert desperately wants to please all the people in the Kadima faction all the time.
BY CONTRAST, Netanyahu is satisfied with pleasing everyone in his faction except his leadership rival, Silvan Shalom. Having a faction of only 12 MKs has proven manageable. It's easy to get your way when everyone agrees, except one nuisance who can easily be ignored.
Netanyahu told Shalom on Wednesday that the two of them would decide on a date for the Likud primary together. He then immediately convened all the Likud MKs except one and decided on a September 3 date without him.
When asked why holding the race was so urgent, Netanyahu said the Likud must be ready in case Winograd advances the next general election. That sounds much cleaner than trying to politically assassinate his last remaining party rival.
Netanyahu received a poll from Ma'agar Mohot's Yitzhak Katz that found that 83 percent of the Likud's voters favored moving up the election. According to the poll, 78% would vote for Netanyahu, 14% for Moshe Feiglin and just 8% for Shalom.
Such a resounding defeat would undoubtedly silence Shalom, who has attacked Netanyahu viciously in recent interviews. Shalom had been calling for advancing the primary for a year, and Netanyahu called his bluff, sensing that such a dramatic victory would give him needed momentum ahead of a general election.
Netanyahu hopes his other obstacles on the path to the Prime Minister's Office similarly self-destruct. He is counting on Kadima to collapse in a post-Winograd leadership struggle and Barak to misuse the political strategy that aided his own political comeback.
It took Netanyahu two and a half years as finance minister, one devastating election campaign and a war in Lebanon to redeem himself in the eyes of the general public and make himself the leading candidate for prime minister.
IF BARAK is serious about removing Labor from the government when Winograd comes out, it means he believes he can accomplish the same political resurrection in just seven months as defense minister. The warnings of Barak's political allies Wednesday that Ramon's appointment would lead to the government's imminent demise would seem to affirm that this is Barak's strategy.
Or perhaps he really intends to remain in the government much longer and he was just paying lip service to Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines when he passed his proposal in Sunday's Labor central committee meeting.
In return, Paz-Pines passed a proposal to prevent the party from holding another primary ahead of the next general election. That makes sense if Winograd really causes an election in early 2008. But if the race is closer to its original date of November 2010, then Barak obtained a free ride on false pretenses.
As a former general, Barak knows that political warfare can be dirty, but the goal is to make it out of the trenches unscathed and on the way to victory.