Analyze This: Bracing for a post-Winograd battle
In November 2000, as his crumbling government was simultaneously contending with an outbreak of Palestinian terror and continuing to negotiate with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, then-prime minister Ehud Barak suddenly called for snap early elections.
"I am not afraid of elections. If you say you want elections, I say: Let there be elections," he thundered in the Knesset."
Barak reportedly acted against the advice of his professional political advisers. They should have simply quoted the memorable tag line from the horror movie The Fly: "No, be afraid. Be very afraid!"
Of all of Barak's several mistakes during his relatively brief time as prime minister, the biggest was undoubtedly to make his tenure so brief. At the time he had other options - for example, calling for an emergency national unity government, as urged by then-Likud and opposition leader Ariel Sharon. Had he done so, the current Labor leader and defense minister might now be nearing the end of his second term as prime minister, rather than trying to regain the seat he gave up so impulsively seven years ago.
Now Barak is nearing another political turning point with the release of the final Winograd Committee report later this month. Having earlier promised to leave the government of Ehud Olmert if the report, as expected, holds the prime minister directly responsible for mishandling the Second Lebanon War, Barak will be under heavy pressure to keep his word and pull Labor out of the coalition.
Earlier this week, following the release of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee report on the war, Barak told Israel Radio, "I won't let the armed forces be a scapegoat... I will sit quietly and think what the right thing is to do from the country's perspective, as well as how to do it, and when I decide, I'll do it."
Some have interpreted that to mean he might be seriously contemplating carrying through on his pledge to leave the government. The Likud has decided that Labor is the weak link in the coalition, and if they turn up the heat sufficiently on Barak - as opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu did in the Knesset on Wednesday - they can pressure him into bolting.
To which I say: Don't count on it. Barak has likely learned his lesson - this time he is afraid, rightly so, of elections, or at least of those he's probably would once again lose. And while it's possible to draw up scenarios in which Labor leaves the coalition and the Kadima government somehow manages to survive, they are too far-fetched to be taken seriously.
Likewise, the notion of Barak going into elections with the calculation that he can end up with no worse than his current hand - that is, end up as the minority partner in a Likud-led government in which he returns to the defense minister's post - is also far from a sure thing. If the government falls, so does Olmert, and at least two potential Kadima leaders - Shaul Mofaz and Avi Dichter - have both the necessary security experience to take the defense minister's job in any future coalition, as well as a diplomatic outlook that would fit just as well, if not better, in a Netanyahu-led government.
So the bet here is that Barak takes the heat and sits tight for now, saying it's for the "sake of the country," and that the best way to defend the IDF's honor is from within the Defense Ministry, no matter what the Winograd Report says.
The real weak links in the government are more likely to be found in Olmert's own Kadima faction. Labor supporters who back the government's diplomatic direction, even as they disapprove of its leadership, understand that Barak can't force a change at the top by himself without bringing about elections. But those who voted for Kadima won't be so forgiving of Tzipi Livni, Mofaz, Dichter and co. if they fail to act following a particularly harsh Winograd verdict on Olmert, knowing that if they were able to work out their internal rivalries, they could choose an interim leader who could probably keep the government alive at least until the end of the year - the target date for formulating some kind of peace deal with the Palestinians.
Kadima's problem with doing this is its inability to formulate a clear succession plan for Olmert, due to the collection of disparate personalities comprising the party's leadership, the absence of clear procedures and the lack of any of the built-in loyalties found in veteran factions like Labor and Likud.
In the meantime, Olmert will be waging the fight of his political life, stalling for time in the hope that any Winograd fallout will be temporary, and of convincing the party that sticking with him is still Kadima's best bet for hanging on to power.
But if a real public outcry calling for Olmert's ouster develops following Winograd, Barak may decide he has no choice but to play a game of chicken with Kadima, threatening to bolt unless they put their own house in order.
But to win with that kind of strategy, the other side has to believe one is ready to take the chance of a crack-up, of a leap off a cliff in the unknown, including early elections. Barak's played that game before - and this time around, he'll probably be able to live with being a live chicken, instead of a political dead duck.