ANALYSIS: Shalom down (for now) but not out (forever)

On the surface it would appear that politically-astute Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom erred in staying in the Likud and not following fellow ministers Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Tzahi Hanegbi and Shaul Mofaz out of the party and into Kadima. For if the polls are a fair indicator of the future, instead of sitting in the Foreign Minister's chair come March 29, the day after the elections, Shalom will be playing second fiddle in a middling-sized opposition party. Instead of meeting with heads of state in European capitals, Shalom will be drafting no-confidence motions in the Knesset. But Shalom, 47, is the proverbial marathon runner, not a sprinter, and many are the considerations that don't appear on the surface. Granted, Shalom is unlikely to be the foreign minister in the next government. But even had he bolted to Kadima he would unlikely have been tapped for that post- not with Olmert, Livni, Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon and Avi Dichter all in line for the plum jobs in a Kadima-led government. Shalom had no guarantees inside Kadima. Unlike Mofaz and Olmert, whose positions inside the Likud institutions were never very strong, the Likud central committee is the source of Shalom's strength. Inside the Likud Shalom is somebody; outside he is just like everybody else. Inside the Likud nobody spits on Silvan; outside in Kadima he would be elbowing for position with everybody else - not the first among equals, but just one among equals. His respectable showing in Monday's Likud primaries, however, guarantees him the number two Likud slot. Some will say "big deal," and argue that it would be no great bargain to be number two in a rump-Likud that in the best polls is only garnering 13 Knesset seats. But this argument misses a key point. Shalom is young for a top tier politician in this country, and - as his decision to remain in Likud indicates - is relatively patient. If the Likud does indeed fail to get more than 13 seats in the next election, many are betting that newly-crowned party head Binyamin Netanyahu would not choose to spend his next four years as opposition leader or head of a minor ministry, and that if those were indeed his alternatives, he would rather leave politics. In this case Shalom would take over the Likud. Assuming Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wins the upcoming elections, a Shalom-led Likud would be a much more comfortable future coalition partner for Sharon than a Netanyahu-led party, and in this scenario Shalom could expect to receive - as party head - a not insubstantial ministry. Even if Netanyahu does stays in politics, a devastating loss in the upcoming elections - which the polls are predicting - would put Shalom on the inside track for unseating him sometime before the 2010 elections. With many questioning the long-term viability of Kadima, a question sharpened this week following Sharon's stroke, leading the Likud in the 2010 elections might not be a bad place for a prime minister wannabe to be. All that, however, is obviously way into the future. As for tomorrow, it is not yet clear whether Shalom will - at Netanyahu's behest - summarily quit his foreign ministry post. If he does, it would not be the first time the foreign ministry would be without a minister. Following David Levy's resignation in January 1998, the ministry was without a head until Sharon took over in October of the same year. In this scenario the portfolio would return to the prime minister, and the ministry would effectively be run by director-general Ron Prosor. While some may ask how a country like Israel, for which diplomacy is so vital, could be without a full-time foreign minister, it is important to remember that until the elections, very little will move on the diplomatic track in any event. There will obviously be no new Israeli initiatives during this period, and there are no new major international initiatives on the horizon. The Iranian issue is a burning one, but this is being monitored by the professionals in the foreign ministry, as well as by the Defense Ministry and Prime Minister's Office. As far as high-level visits are concerned, very few are expected to take place from now until the end of March, with the world viewing the elections as a temporary "do not disturb sign" hanging outside the country's door.