Analysis: Survival of the fittest

Regardless of the vote's outcome, Olmert is set to be the huge political winner.

Olmert worried 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Olmert worried 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Regardless of whether Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon comes out ahead in today's Labor primary, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may very well end up the huge political winner. The Labor primary - and the overwhelming likelihood that Defense Minister Amir Peretz will be roundly defeated and, as a result, lose his cabinet post - is a political blessing for Olmert. It will give him the opportunity to carry out a sweeping cabinet reshuffle and increase his chances of political survival in the process. If the polls are correct, and either Barak or Ayalon wins the Labor race on Monday, Olmert - using the air of crisis now gripping the country because of the situation in Sderot and Gaza - could very well push for a national unity government. His dream team would be Barak at Defense and Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu in Finance. But even if Barak doesn't win, he would be comfortable having Ayalon in Defense, since Ayalon - unlike Peretz - has a security background. Olmert's case to the country to accept this national unity situation would be simple. "We are in a crisis situation, what with Sderot under barrage, the IDF taking daily action inside Gaza, and the Iranian nuclear threat looming larger. This is not the time for new elections that would paralyze the government." Olmert's spinmeisters - Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad - will make sure the government's spokespeople remind the nation that not only does it want to avoid early elections now because of the crisis in Gaza, but that it should also be sorely afraid that a new election might - God forbid - bring Netanyahu back into power. With his abysmal polling figures, it will be difficult to sell Olmert as a Churchillean leader, but he can be sold as the great manager - the political virtuoso who can put together a winning team. Granted, he didn't do so hot when he set up his cabinet after winning the elections last year, but he has learned. If last time he had everybody playing out of position, this time he will create a team where everyone plays to their maximum strengths. Paradoxically, Olmert can use what has become almost an axiom in the public debate - that the country is facing a severe leadership vacuum - to his advantage. "Okay," he could say, "We might not have one great leader - as I said before, I know I'm not popular - but we could put together a great leadership team. You say I don't have experience. Maybe not, but with Bibi and Barak - two former prime ministers - we've got experience in spades." This strategy would be based on three assumptions. The first is that Labor doesn't really want to go to national elections now, because the polls are not broadly smiling on Labor any more than they are on Kadima. The second assumption has to do with Netanyahu. Netanyahu, obviously, would love to go to elections right now. The only problem is that the arithmetic in the Knesset doesn't add up to a situation where this is going to happen anytime soon. Several no-confidence motions were solidly defeated after the Winograd Committee's interim report that slammed Olmert on April 30. So Netanyahu has two choices: wait patiently in the opposition - either for the arithmetic to change, or for one of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's investigations to stick and cause Olmert legal, as opposed to political, problems - or jump in and serve in a position for which many in the country think he is magnificently suited. By doing so, he would also secure a place around the table where the country's decisions are actually made, not just criticized. The third assumption, and this one may necessitate the greatest stretch of all, is that Olmert and Netanyahu could get beyond their deep-seated antipathy for one another and actually work on the same team. Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin did it in the early '90s, but they at least were serving in the same party. An Olmert-Netanyahu condominium would be even more difficult. Nevertheless, political survival and opportunity is oil that can grease even the crankiest of engines. An Olmert-Netanyahu-Barak or Olmert-Netanyahu-Ayalon team is one that only a political master like Olmert could put together, and would put him in the position of manager-in-chief, an unusual job for unusual times. With such a team in place, he could conceivably ride out the release of the final Winograd Report this summer, saying that he has internalized its lessons and that the new government is evidence of that. Such a scenario could very well extend Olmert's days as prime minister. But whether this combination could actually govern harmoniously, or even at all, is a different question altogether.