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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
If there is something surprising about the almost finished coalition talks, it's the ease with which Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz seem to have totally buried the hatchet between them and gotten down to business.
Just a month ago, Labor sources were casting doubt on their ability to sit together in the same coalition after the vicious election campaign. Labor attacked Olmert for his hedonistic, cigar-smoking ways, and Kadima portrayed Peretz as eminently unsuitable for national leadership. Even after the election, there seemed to be a gulf between the two, with Peretz accusing Olmert of acting aloof and refusing to accept his phone calls, since he was made to wait for 10 seconds on the line.
And now suddenly they're smiling at joint press conferences, holding meetings into the night at which they seem much more adept at coming up with coalition agreements than their teams of lawyers laboring away at Kfar Hamaccabiah. Can this be love?
Olmert's aides have tried to put out the version that this isn't the first time that the two were involved in successful negotiations. They cited the period when Peretz was head of the Histadrut and Olmert industry and trade minister, but when pressed for details, they haven't managed to come up with any examples.
The truth is much less romantic. Olmert and Peretz have basically nothing in common, except that they are both leaders by default who now realize that they have to cling to each other if they want to survive in their current positions. Neither of them can be proud of their election results. They might head the two largest parties in the Knesset, but between them they have less than 50 MKs.
To survive as prime minister and Kadima leader, Olmert has to prove capable of running a government with a clear agenda. To do that he needs Labor as a faithful coalition partner. To survive as Labor chairman, Peretz needs to show tangible gains for the party in the coalition agreement and a central position for himself to prove his leadership credentials.
Both of them are aware that come the next election, they will once again be at each other's throats, fighting for the middle ground, but to get to that day in one piece, they need each other.
That's why Olmert offered Peretz a ladder to climb down from his disastrous Labor-right wing coalition initiative and agreed to give over the valuable Defense and Education ministries. That's why Peretz is willing to enter the coalition despite receiving less than iron-clad assurances of a $1,000 minimum wage and a national pension plan.
Despite the wide differences in character and outlook between the two partners, and the propensity of both of them to get into political punch-ups, we can expect a harmonious relationship at least for the first year or so of the coalition. Both of them need each other's support so they can get onto the more pressing task of imposing their rule over their parties. What's bringing Olmert and Peretz together isn't friendship, it's the survival instinct.