Barack Obama won't be much occupied with the Israeli elections, but his image will influence the campaigns of the prime ministerial candidates. Each will try to spin the mood of the American upheaval to his or her advantage and try to tap into some "Obama effect."
Tzipi Livni is emphasizing the closeness between her positions vis-a-vis the peace process and the elected president's, while Benjamin Netanyahu is underscoring his familiarity with America and the personal chemistry he has going with Obama.
The polls' two leading candidates are trying to ride the wave of change and revolution that Obama's election heralds in the United States. But the analogy to Israel is somewhat problematic. Netanyahu is an opposition leader who wants to propose an alternative to the outgoing government. But as former prime minister and finance minister it is hard for him to offer anything fresh and new.
Livni has the advantage of being fresh and unique, as a woman and the youngest contender. But as number two in Ehud Olmert's cabinet, she can hardly represent "change." She has the same problem John McCain had - everyone knows she was Olmert's rival, as McCain was George W. Bush's, but they still represent the same party and the same way.
The foreign minister believes that her support for a Palestinian state and the continued negotiations for a final-status agreement will ensure good working relations with Obama.
"I've talked to Obama twice ... and he seemed to accept Israel's principals [vis-a-vis the peace process]," she said on the radio Thursday.
A Livni aide adds: "Bibi may talk with an American accent, but it's the outgoing Republican administration's accent." Her people's main argument is that Netanyahu's stances at his campaign opening, like refusing to negotiate over Jerusalem, place him on a collision course with the new Democratic administration in Washington.
Benny Begin's return to Likud merely bolsters the approach rejecting any agreement to divide the land. The American administration will not accept that, they say.
Netanyahu and his people remain unfazed. First of all, Netanyahu's two meetings with Obama were successful and there was chemistry between them. Beyond personal relations, Obama is an open man and has no reason to insist on continuing the peace process in the same failed course since the Oslo days. Clinton and Bush's administrations went that way and achieved nothing. Netanyahu will offer another approach.
Netanyahu isn't proposing canceling the idea of a final-status agreement, but he believes it is wrong to condition every advance on an agreement on the last refugee and last alley in Jerusalem. In his conversation with Obama in Jerusalem in July, Netanyahu outlined his "economic peace" - encouraging economic development in the West Bank. He got the impression the visitor was very interested in the issue.
His people believe that Obama will not put pressure on Israel. In the coming weeks Obama will star in the Israeli election campaign, and every appointment he makes, every hint of his positions and intentions for the Middle East will be used immediately in the candidates' propaganda.
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