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Future of Olmert Coalition Government Now Hinges On Defense Minister Ehud Barak

Barak Must Decide Between Honoring His Word To Topple Olmert And Continuing His Job Of Rehabilitating The IDF After Second Lebanon War

Barak's Party Could Convene To Decide the Issue Which has Split Israeli Society

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Labor party leader Ehud Barak is now wrestling with the most difficult question of his long and distinguished political and military career - should he resign as defense minister and topple the Olmert government after the scathing Winnograd enquiry into the Second Lebanon War or is his first duty to carry on reforming the Israel Defense Forces? The stakes are extremely high. All the opinion polls indicate that Bibi Netanyahu's Likud party would win an early election and form the next government. This at a time the Jewish state faces a mounting nuclear threat from Iran, relentless Palestinian rocketing from the Gaza Strip and faltering peace talks with West Bank Palestinians. The questions of the honorable politician and true patriot have created a unique and painful dilemma that includes the families of fallen soldiers and reserve soldiers who feel they were let down by an incompetent Olmert government during the recent war against Hezbollah.

Israel is now awaiting a decision by Defense Minister Ehud Barak that will have the widest of implications for the country, the Palestinians and possibly for the entire Middle East. Will the Labor Party leader now honor his promise to topple the coalition government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and go to an early election after the publication of the final Winnograd report? In so doing, public opinion polls show that Bibi Netanyahu, the right wing opposition leader would win such an election with Barak and Labor left out of the next government? Or will he risk public censure by not keeping his word by seeking some way to carry on in his job as defense minister and enable Olmert to continue as prime minister? Barak now faces a double bind with the issues running sharp and deep splitting not only Barak's Labor party but society in general - it is a quandary which pits the honorable politician against the true patriot.

(Photo: Amit Shabi)

At present, Barak is perceived by the public at large as doing a good job in reforming the Israel Defense Forces after what is viewed as the disasterous war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Many Israelis say he is the best suited for this crucial job in light of the Winnograd findings. Barak's current dilemma should be viewed in the context of the post Winnograd era. Although the enquiry let Olmert off the hook by exhonerating him of any attempt to improve his political image by luanching the controversial ground operation at the end of the war that cost the lives of 33 soldiers, the political and military echelons were found wanting from start to finish. Winnograd painted a picture of Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz as doing their best but bungling the war. It is fair to say they had no idea how to conduct effectively the geo-strategic crisis after Hezbollah carried out the raid from Lebanon that killed seven IDF soldiers, abducted two others and rocketed Israeli towns and villages on July 12 th 2006. As a consequence, Olmert along with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz will likely go down in Israeli history as the worst trio ever to conduct a war. Public condemnation forced both Peretz and Halutz to resign. Olmert has survived only because of Labor's support and the realization that Netanyahu would probably win the next election if Barak bolted the Olmert cabinet. The bottom line is that Olmert simply was at a loss about what to do when when Chief of Staff Halutz's reliance on air power failed to suppress the massive Hezbollah rocketing of northern Israel.

So, should Barak keep his promise to bring down Olmert and trigger an early election? The angry families of fallen soldiers, many reserve soldiers who fought in the war, and Olmert's political rivals are calling on Barak to do the honorable thing and keep his word. Five and possibly more Labor Knesset Members are also demanding that Barak quit the Olmert government. One of them, Shelli Yihimovitch , a former TV reporter who has turned into a Labor voice of conscience, tells of how her son is about to be recruited into the IDF and she is worried about his serving in the army, if Olmert carries on as prime minister. The differences inside Labor run sharp and deep. For example, Amir Peretz, a bitter rival who never misses a chance to castigate his successor, has declared that Labor should stay in the government for the good of the country and that Barak will find one of his 'flip-flops' to do so. Clearly, Olmert is deeply committed to the peace process with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and this would likely come to a screeching halt if Netanyahu were elected prime minister. Labor of course has a built-in affinity to negotiations with the Palestinians. But this does not cut any ice with those Laborites who contend that Olmert must go and ' Barak should not break his word to the public out of fear that Netanyahu will win the next election - that Labor must act out of political principle and not out of political opportunism to save its cabinet seats '.

Barak's Options: In order to prevent a rift in Labor, the party leader could take the decision to the rank and file and call a special convention to decide the issue. He could fall back on that old Mapai - Labor standby of Din HaTanuah - the movement's decision that obligates one and all. But Barak would still have to present his position loud and clear to the party before any vote. On this level, opinion polls show that a majority of Laborites support Barak remaining in the Olmert government. The problem is that the same polls also show that most Israelis feel that Barak should honor his word and topple Olmert. The ball comes back again to the Labor party leader whose ultimate goal is to become prime minister. If this is the case, Barak who has an M.A. in operations research could be expected to analyze which course of action will best serve this goal. By not keeping his word (or by working out a deal with Olmert on an 'early' election date in another year of so) would harm Barak's credibility with many potential Labor voters whenever the next election is called. The Defense Minister has been working hard to restore his image after his failed peace effort at Camp David seven years ago and that could now go down the tubes if he does not keep his promise made nine months ago after Winnograd's scathing interim report). The polls consistently show that Netanyahu's rise has been mainly at the expense of Olmert's Kadima party which has plummeted from 29 Knesset seats to 12 or so. These are swing voters from right and left of center of the political spectrum who have shown they can go Kadima, Labor or Labor depending on the circumstances. Elderly voters who supported the Pensioners Party last time are also up for grabs with the rest of the electorate leaning to the far left and far right. On the other hand, Israel's surprise air strike on the secret Syrian facility last September 6th also shows that unforeseen circumstances are more often than not the norm in Israel. And who knows what lies around the corner with Iran and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Olmert has also pledged to surge ahead with Abbas in line with the Bush hope for a breakthrough agreement this year and dramatic developments in any of these spheres could also shake up opinion polls and possibly Labor's prospects if Barak's security leadership continues to get high marks.

However, if Barak keeps his promise and precipitates the fall of the Olmert government an early election he will preserve his political credibility but he and Labor will probably not play a role in the next government when crucial security decisions may have to be taken vis- a- vis Iran and Gaza. There is a possibility that Netanyahu could turn to Labor to form a national unity government but that would be a long shot considering Netanyahu's objection to the kind of Palestinian peace deal supported by Labor. Here's where Labor cabinet ministers Ben Eliezer, Herzog, Simchon and Vilnayie weigh in saying the national interest comes first and Labor must not topple the government at this critical time. In the coming days, Ehud Barak will have to sift through the various arguments which pits honorable politician against true patriot. Obviously, Barak prefers to stay on as defense minister since he is not ready for a general election. Anyone with eyes in his head, let alone arguably the country's top security expert, saw long ago that Olmert was incompetent in conducting a war. Barak is waiting to weigh the country's response but the opinion polls do not point to a clear cut course of action. He can preserve his political credibility by honoring his promise and triggering an early election - Kadima has reacted to Winnograd without an internal move to dump Olmert because there is no party consensus on his successor. So Barak could play the honorable politician but by so doing lead Labor into the political wilderness. On the other hand, he could say to hell with politicking and looking good by keeping his word. Barak could declare that he is the best qualified defense minister in Israel today and that his first duty is to the national interest and to saving the lives of Israeli soldiers many of whom were squandered in the Second Lebanon War. When it comes to a Barak loss of credibility even his sharpest critics will not say he is not qualified to be defense minister, on the contrary. But he would pay a political price in his bid to become a future prime minister. This then may be is the essence of Barak's quandary at present - in order to continue in his crucial role as defense minister after a disasterous war he must be ready to risk ever becoming prime minister in the future.

David Essing

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