Analyze this: The two Ehuds speed up for the cliff's edge in high-risk game of political chicken

It's time for Kadima to choose which Ehud it will follow.

For the past month, ever since Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign in the wake of Morris Talansky's testimony, the two Ehuds have been playing a high-stakes game of chicken. Like two drivers heading to a cliff and daring the other to jump out first before they reach the precipice, both men have been using the threat of bringing down the government to try to force the other to do his will. Now we have reached the cliff's edge - Wednesday's preliminary vote to dissolve the Knesset and head to elections no later than November. Neither one actually wants that to actually happen. The only problem is that their game has picked up so much speed in the last few days that it may be too late for them to get out before flying off into the abyss. Olmert, of course, is likely heading in that direction anyway, but he is certainly in no rush to speed up his demise. But the prime minister views Barak's demand to immediately set a date for a Kadima primary in which his successor would be chosen as akin to writing his own political epitaph. Instead, the prime minister prefers to take his chances in a showdown with his Labor coalition partners, even at the risk that it will result in an exit from office that precedes what most believe will be an indictment issued against him later this year in the Talansky probe. In threatening to immediately fire any cabinet member who votes for Wednesday's bill, Olmert may be taking his inspiration from his predecessor Ariel Sharon's decision in 2004 to send packing then-National Union ministers Benny Elon and Avigdor Lieberman for their opposition to his Gaza disengagement plan. Sharon did so, even though it led to him losing both the NU and the National Religious Party from his government, with the confidence that he still had enough support both within and without his coalition to remain in power and carry out his program. Olmert doesn't have that luxury, and without Labor's support he will surely fall from office. Perhaps he reasons that even this fate is preferable to the disgrace of being forced out by a corruption indictment. If, despite his talk of a "miracle" to help him avoid that outcome, Olmert actually believes all he has to lose in this game is a few more months in power, than it was reasonable for to him assume that the other Ehud would be the first to blink. After all, in an early election Barak risks not only losing his defense minister's post and his chance to succeed Olmert as premier, but even his status as Labor leader if his party - as some current polls suggest - fails to do better than a poor second or third against Likud. Yet the defense minister also has good reasons for taking this chance now. Polls have also shown Barak losing precious electoral ground over the past year, with Labor dropping to historic lows. Surely a reason for this is that Olmert has become so politically radioactive in the wake of the Talansky probe that he is also dragging his political allies down. Barak has to think more long-term, and not just tag along with the prime minister's day-to-day survival strategy. At least elections, with all the risks they entail, would mean removing the Olmert millstone from his neck as he faced an opponent - Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu - whom he has triumphed over previously in a direct contest, in 1999. And of course, Barak is also gambling it might not come to that this year. Shas may yet provide Labor with a face-saving path out of this chancy gambit, if it backs down first on its threat to also vote against the government, and instead accepts the prime minister's offer of increased funding for its constituency. But what the defense minister is really counting on are those passengers in the back seat of Olmert's car who so far have been reluctant to grasp the wheel of their recklessly bold driver - the rest of Kadima's Knesset faction. Cowed until now, by the rivalry among the party's leading figures and unable to agree among themselves on a clear successor to Olmert; by rules designed by Sharon expressly to curtail the opportunities for an internal revolt; and by the limited political experience of several of the faction's back-benchers - Kadima's MKs have for the most part sat meekly in the back of the car while the prime minister has brought them to point of crashing. Not only do most face daunting odds against returning as MKs in another election cycle; it's questionable if the party itself will be able to keep from atomizing, unless it can pull itself together and make a reasonable transition from Olmert to his successor in the coming weeks. So if Wednesday's vote brings down the coalition, the only chance for a substantial number of Kadima MKs to keep their seats beyond this year would be if they put enough pressure on the prime minister to take the one step he has hitherto refused to consider, but which new reports claim he is now finally weighing - stepping down and allowing his party to form a new government without him. It's crunch-time for Kadima to choose which Ehud it's going to follow - before both lead them like lemmings in a political free fall few are likely to survive. [email protected]