Politics: In the final analysis...

Olmert and Barak share the same goal now of ensuring that the government lasts until at least the beginning of 2009, but for different reasons.

Winograd 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Winograd 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Defense Minister Ehud Barak started his first post Winograd day on Thursday by paying a shiva call to his erstwhile Labor leadership rival, Minister-without-Portfolio Ami Ayalon, whose father died two days earlier. It was ironic that Barak was visiting Ayalon while his contemporaries were waiting for him to reveal his next political move, because it was the closeness of his race against Ayalon that got Barak into his current predicament in the first place. Acting against his own political intuition, Barak broke months of disciplined silence when he gave into political pressure and convened an ill-fated press conference at Kibbutz Sdot Yam in May, in which his message was as muddled as the backdrop of confused children and displaced dogs. In the speech, he called upon Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign, yet expressed interest in serving as his defense minister. He gave an ultimatum for Olmert to quit by the end of the May Labor primary, but he later delayed the deadline to the publication date of the Winograd Report in a speech he made, in June, to earn the endorsement of MK Ophir Paz-Pines. "[The report] requires personal conclusions," Barak said. "Olmert must seek personal conclusions and resign, as Dan Halutz and Amir Peretz did, each in his own way. If Olmert does not [quit] by the full report's publication, we will have to end our partnership with him and work to establish a new government in the current Knesset, or alternatively, to set a date for elections." Barak recently admitted to one of his confidants that he wished he could retract the statements he made at Sdot Yam, which he never intended as a promise, and which made him the focal point of media attention after the release of a report investigating a war in which he played no part. He is currently looking for a way to maintain both his cabinet seat and his credibility. The Sdot Yam statements most likely did not change any votes in a Labor race that tipped in Barak's favor due to the endorsement Ayalon received from unpopular incumbent Amir Peretz. Sdot Yam was the original sin that has clouded Barak's tenure in the Defense Ministry the same way that appointing Amir Peretz defense minister was the original sin that has haunted Olmert's premiership. The prime minister phoned Peretz after Winograd's unexpectedly mild press conference on Wednesday night and said, "We made it out of it." He reportedly told his associates that his "guillotine" had been removed and "now we can finally go to work." OLMERT'S ASSOCIATES believe that the combination of the Winograd Report and Barak's taking over as defense minister closed the book on his mistake of having appointed Peretz. In the carefully worded statement his office released Wednesday night, Olmert invited Barak to put his own mistake behind him, too. The statement said that Olmert had "complete confidence" in the IDF and the abilities of its commanders and officers. He added that "the IDF would continue to train, improve and strengthen, in order to be prepared for any challenge or mission." By focusing his message on consoling the IDF, Olmert sought to reinforce the perception that the army bore the brunt of Winograd's wrath and not he. He was also sending a message to Barak that the defense minister should be the one to fix the army's problems. Olmert knows how to speak the language of his political partners. He made a point of using the words b'ezrat hashem [with God's help] during his press conference with US President George W. Bush in order to pander to Shas. Whenever he wanted to reach out to Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, Olmert mentioned the need to "maintain Israel's deterrence," which was a code phrase between them for a potential bombing of Iran. Similarly, when speaking to Barak via the press, Olmert makes a point of telling him how much the army needs him. This is important for Barak, who, when he returned to politics, announced that he was "running for defense minister." OLMERT AND Barak share the same goal now of ensuring that the government lasts until at least the beginning of 2009, but for different reasons. The prime minister wants to reach an agreement with the Palestinians by the November deadline, initiate an election that would be held three months later and run on a platform of implementing the deal that could attract votes away from Labor and Meretz. Barak is convinced that Olmert will fail to reach a deal with the Palestinians. It is important for him that Israeli voters see that happen, because it would vindicate him for his own failures in peacemaking when he was prime minister. Barak also wants to give Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu time to self-destruct, as he is prone to do. Olmert already declared victory in the post-Winograd survival battle when he told Kadima ministers on Thursday that his government would "work energetically to fix the inadequacies mentioned in the report." Barak could also emerge victorious if he uses the report to allow himself to remain in the government without too much of a public outcry. SO WHO are the losers in the report? Netanyahu, the Likud and everyone else who was hoping it would force out Olmert and Barak sooner, which, according to most polls, includes a majority of the public. Olmert's loyalists besmirched Netanyahu in every interview after the report came out, wrongly accusing him of charging Olmert with the deaths of the 33 soldiers who fell in battle during the last 60 hours of the war. Netanyahu made a point of not speaking Wednesday night, because he wanted his statement to the press on Thursday to be more dramatic, and because he had not yet read the report. The opposition leader missed out on an opportunity to respond when he should have. He also missed an opportunity to use the interim and final Winograd reports to bring down Olmert. If Netanyahu does not succeed in persuading Shas to leave the government and stopping the diplomatic process, it could cause irrevocable damage to him, and the way he sees it, to the country's security. That will be his challenge in the weeks after Winograd.