Analysis: From 'failure' to 'magician' within a month

Olmert (finally) has reason to smile.

Shimon Peres might have won the presidential race on Wednesday afternoon, Ehud Barak might have won the Labor Party chairmanship on Tuesday night, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will wake up Thursday morning the biggest victor of them all. Just a few short weeks ago, following the release of the Winograd Committee's interim report, the land was filled with a sense that Olmert's days were numbered and that either a fed-up public or a restless coalition would throw him out of office in no time. No more. Indeed, on a political level Olmert could be forgiven for rolling out of bed Thursday morning singing that old song from the musical Oklahoma! about a beautiful morning and "Ev'rything's goin' my way." Of the Barak and Peres victories, Barak's election - at least from Olmert's point of view - was the more important. Despite Barak's rhetoric about the need for Olmert to step down, the new Labor Party leader will be in no great hurry to expedite the process. Barak - who is expected to be named defense minister in a matter of days - is a threat to Olmert in the long term. But in the short term they both need time, and that is a commodity they both can give one another. Barak, who has spend the last six years making millions of dollars, needs time now to re-establish his credentials with the Israeli public. He needs to prove himself again, and the Defense Ministry is the perfect place to do this. Never mind that he was the architect of the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, a move widely viewed now as one of the catalysts to the Palestinian violence of 2000. Never mind that he was the prime minister who did not respond forcefully, as the IDF wanted, when Hizbullah kidnapped three IDF soldiers from Har Dov in October 2000. He is still the country's most decorated soldier and, as such, will enjoy a degree of public confidence that current Defense Minister Amir Peretz could never dream of. But he will still have to prove that he is capable, which is why he won't be in any hurry to bring Olmert down. He needs a few good months in the Defense Ministry to do this; to refurbish his image and win back the aura he once enjoyed as "Mr. Security." And precisely because Barak needs time, he will give Olmert time. Olmert's polling figures remain in the doldrums, and it is widely believed that even if he manages to stave off a call for new elections, he has no chance at all of winning another election. Unless, of course, he is able to pull something dramatic out of the hat (peace with Syria)? Regardless, more time gives him hope. The fact that Peres was elected president also gives Olmert hope, because now he doesn't have to worry about a possible challenge from Peres from within his own Kadima Party. Having made short work of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's efforts to unseat him, and with Peres safely ensconced in Beit Hanassi, there is really nobody left in Kadima who can mount a serious campaign against Olmert's leadership. As a result of these developments, Olmert will go to Washington Sunday not as a weak leader whose days are numbered, as would have been the case had he traveled there a month ago, but rather as an adroit politician who has secured a new lease on political life. If the Americans, as well as much of the rest of the world, were waiting to see how things would play out in Israel before firing up any new diplomatic initiatives, now they pretty much have their answer. Following the fighting in the Gaza Strip, however, the uncertainty has now shifted to what is happening inside the Palestinian Authority. Olmert must still face the conclusions of the final Winograd Report, but unless that committee recommends that he step down - something that seems very unlikely - there is little reason now to think that he won't be able to weather the storm from the final report, just as he did the interim one. The remaining problem for Olmert's survivability as prime minister, however, is State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and his various investigations. If one of those investigations sticks, Olmert's considerable political skills and ability to maneuver may not be able to save him, since he will then be facing a legal - rather than a political - problem.