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Olmert Photo: AP
 
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Attila Somfalvi  

 

Netanyahu, Barak biding their time

Political fallout from war could exact stiff price from current leaders, while providing golden opportunity for others

Published: 08.20.06, 18:23 / Israel Opinion

Last Tuesday, a short while after Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Knesset, one Kadima Party member of the government walked into the Knesset dining room and said cynically, "Now everything is clear. The Likud won this war. We lost, but the Likud won."

 

The person looked at Netanyahu, who had entered a minute before with a long wake of admirers, and the sight ate him up from inside.

 

The Likud chairman appears so pleased with himself, you couldn't miss it. He was almost shining, people kept congratulating him on the speech, which left Ehud Olmert's speech for dust. For a moment, it seemed the good old Netanyahu was back, at least with regard to success.

 

The Kadima member's furious words are apparently not far removed from reality. Four months after what appeared to be a near total collapse, Netanyahu and the Likud are back on top.

 

Benefiting from the war

It may not be nice to say, but this war was good for Netanyahu. His measured behavior, and that of his colleagues, won him many merit points amongst the general public. But it's more than an issue of behavior. Luck is also involved.  

 

And the Likud chairman's great stroke of luck is that at the moment, its Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz like ducks at a friring range. Even in his wildest dreams, the opposition leader could not have asked for two more problematic people, individuals who led a problematic war that ended, apparently, with lack of success that is clear for all to see.  

 

On one hand is Olmert, the leader of a party that appeared to have no blood running in its veins, even when it appeared to be most alive. On the other hand is Peretz, the head of a party in which there is someone wielding an axe in every corner. 

 

"We must remember that people don't win power in Israel," laughed one Likud MK last week. "Someone has got to lose power. If he (Netanyahu) keeps that in mind, we will be in good shape." 

 

Netanyahu's position is indeed getting better, but even he knows just how problematic his competitors' position is.

 

As prime minister, Olmert still manages to pull the cart, but even those close to him admit he's got problems, that too many doors are starting to close for him, that too many people don't trust him within the party he's supposed to be leading. Sometimes, even the best spin masters cannot rescue a sinking ship, even if it is sinking slowly but surely. 

 

Peretz, for his part, is in an even bigger mess. Last week his senior advisers told Ynet they don't know what to do. "We don't know how to get out of this," they said.

 

Why not Barak?

And that's not all. Over the past few days, senior Labor Party officials, who until a month ago were considered very close to Chairman Peretz, have begun making noises about looking for an alternative.

 

Make no mistake: These are no marginal, back-bench MKs, but rather very senior officials, the type of folks found at the center of the Labor Party's political action. And they, and other officials, have already started talking about the future, about the day after Peretz.

 

The feeling is that Peretz has lost it, that he's in a spin, a sort of vertigo. When the leader has vertigo, the tendency is to jump ship. Because with all due respect to the pilot, no one wants to crash with him if he doesn't have to. It's better to jump in time. 

 

The person waiting quietly for Peretz to crash is Ehud Barak. People may not like Barak, they may criticize his behavior, but the fact of the matter is that many people in the political establishment believe he will return to lead the Labor Party in the near future. 

 

True, he's got a lot of work to do to improve his image, but nowadays, as Olmert and Peretz are undergoing basic training, this works to his advantage. At the moment, he's remaining quiet, not rushing to come to any conclusions or give interviews.

 

His supporters say he is keeping a low profile, waiting for people to start missing him, for people to understand they can't give the country to inexperienced politicians again, "clowns," in the words of one Barak adviser. 

 

For now, Barak is holding meetings. Knesset Members who haven't seen him in months are being called for intimate meetings. "I haven't heard from him in a year-and-a-half," said one MK considered close to Peretz, " and all of a sudden I get a phone call asking me to meet with him (Barak). There's no question he's making plans."

 

Pay attention

... to Effie Eitam. All of a sudden, with no prior warning, Eitam has become stately. While the war continued, he remained stoic. Afterward, when everyone was drawing their swords, he told his political colleagues to take a deep breath and be quiet. 

 

Now is not the time for war, he said. Those close to him believe he is undergoing an image switch amongst the general public. "People see Effie differently," say his advisers:

 

"The establishment views him differently. He has been stately, and he has no question this will find political expression in future. He is going through an interesting time at the moment. The establishment is starting to realize that this guy shouting from the hilltops actually has something to say. 

 

"From his perspective, there has been a certain change. As opposed to the past, he has given support to the government. He speaks differently now. When Olmert spoke about realignment, but he worried the consensus could crack, Eitam told everyone to remain united, and called on the Orange Brigades to continue fighting. This is a stately approach, one that never used to find expression. It's a new Effie."

 

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