Game Of Chicken:The Winner Is...

...Ehud Barak.

Prime Minister Olmert has decided not to simply resign, but to face a party primary by September 25; this vote, he knows, will almost certainly force him to step aside without scuttling the current coalition.

Barak has proven that he is prepared to stand on a matter of principle, and even face the voters if necessary—in short, that he has the guts to lead, which is the last thing you’d expect Israel’s most decorated officer to have to prove.

But there are other winners. Olmert has won back a measure of his dignity. His many friends should be happy for him. He has even valorized an important judicial principle—academic, perhaps, when applied to sitting prime ministers who admit to taking bags of greenbacks to run a campaign—that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.

The real winner is what’s left of the peace process. All the talk about Israeli plans to attack Gaza, or bomb Iran, should not distract us. Leaked descriptions of IDF planning are as consistent with the idea that Barak is trying to create leverage for serious, three-front negotiations as the idea that he seeks military solutions. Barak knows the limits of military power; he is the one who pulled the IDF out of Lebanon, after all.

Anyway, to have negotiations of any kind, you have to avoid elections just now. With Olmert’s announcement, the current, centrist coalition has a realistic chance of surviving for another two years, which means Netanyahu has, for the moment, been blocked. True, if Shaul Mofaz loses the Kadima primary, and leads Shas and Kadima rightists out of the coalition, we might get an election anyway. But the optimism of the will savors one victory at a time.

Netanyahu has responded that Barak has “spit in the face of the Israeli public,” though polls continue to show the public both supports the government’s diplomatic surge and doubts that anything will come of it. Clearly, the government needs new leadership and more time: to work with the new American administration, to preside over a period of calm.

But one can see why Netanyahu is upset. Perhaps Sheldon Adelson will soothe him with more containers full of greenbacks from Macau, now that Maariv seems to be for sale again.