In the election campaign for the 19th Knesset, the Habayit Hayehudi-National Union ticket is growing at a rate of 1.5 seats a week. It has already doubled its strength compared to the outgoing Knesset. Naftali Bennett, a 40-year-old lad who seems to be hiding most of his party's candidates from the public - and he knows why - has become the hot story of this campaign.

Bennett is laughing but others are crying. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is crying, as the magnificent creation called Likud-Beiteinu shrinks before his eyes. The American election strategist Arthur Finkelstein was summoned urgently to Israel - a week before his planned visit - in an effort to staunch the bleeding. Also crying is Yair Lapid, who, on the basis of some mysterious information, has vowed to win 22 seats. He's currently hovering at around half that number.

Other weepers are Shas leaders Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai - proving that the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Also lamenting is Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, who, in the worst-case scenario, will have the dubious pleasure of signing the death certificate of the largest party in the outgoing Knesset, and, in the best, see it get barely enough votes to be part of the new Knesset.

Tears are also flowing from Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ), who can't understand why the left-wingers are not streaming in their masses to the only left-wing Zionist party that is proud of what it is - and from Shelly Yacimovich, whose party has so far been unable to recover from Tzipi Livni's entry into the race and has been stuck at 17 seats for weeks (down from the 21-22 it had for a whole year ). Livni is also lamenting, because she wanted to be the tie-breaker and bloc-buster, but so far is busting only the center-left bloc.

Yacimovich's announcement on Thursday that she will not join a Netanyahu government - after stubbornly declining to rule out such a possibility until this point in the race and claiming that it would be "political folly" - is intended to bring back the seats she had been losing recently. This was the sharpest U-turn of this campaign, and it is the result of panic. Anyway, the chances that this would have been an issue are less than slim: Netanyahu does not want Yacimovich in his government. She spells trouble. He's trying to catch the attention of Lapid and Livni.

On Tuesday the election commercials will start to be broadcast on the three main TV channels. With 18 seats still in the floating category, a brilliant TV campaign or a good spot that is repeated almost every evening can move a certain number of seats from one side to another. It will be interesting to follow the Likud-Beiteinu ads to see how far to the right they veer. Netanyahu is a great believer in getting messages across. The organizational aspect doesn't interest him. "A minute on Channel 2 is worth 100 parlor meetings," he often tells his aides.

This is the fourth election campaign in which Netanyahu has headed Likud. He was elected twice and defeated twice. He has never managed to get 30 seats or more for the party, as Ariel Sharon did easily with his 38 in 2003. In 1996, when Netanyahu was elected prime minister, Likud-Gesher-Tzomet won 32 seats, of which Likud’s share was 22 seats. In 1999, Likud under Netanyahu tumbled to 19 seats; in 2006 it plunged to a nadir of 12; in 2009, it rose to 27. At present, according to the polls, the share of Likud representatives in the joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu is 21-22 seats.

In the merger deal between Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, Likud is now losing six seats, but Yisrael Beiteinu losing only two. Lieberman is riding Likud’s back into the next Knesset. Is it any wonder that Likud’s grass-roots activists and Central Committee members are furious at the partnership?

Nor are they alone. Likud MKs and ministers are asking themselves, with trepidation, what Netanyahu and Lieberman agreed about divvying up the ministerial portfolios in the next government. According to the regular model, Yisrael Beiteinu will get six portfolios, one more than in the outgoing government, and Likud nine − five fewer than it now has. What an uproar we can expect in the ruling party when Judgment Day − the day ministerial portfolios are distributed − arrives.

Survival game

Last week, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took part in two political events organized by Kadima, alongside party leader Shaul Mofaz. In both of them he targeted Netanyahu, Yacimovich and Livni. He railed against their lack of content, empty slogans, pretentiousness and unfulfillable promises. Yair Lapid alone escaped his verbal barbs.

It is no small matter when a former prime minister throws himself wholeheartedly into the campaign of a party that is tottering on the edge of an electoral cliff. He also attended two meetings at Kadima’s campaign headquarters. “Play up Mofaz,” he told the staff, “his experience, his record, his character.”

The connection between Olmert and the party he led for three years is a perfect confluence of interests. On the bride’s side, he is considered the most effective weapon in the struggle for the hearts and minds of Kadima voters who defected to Livni’s Hatnuah, but have not yet come to terms with their choice. Olmert is the only player on the Kadima court who is capable of persuading some of them to return home.

On the groom’s side, there is a dual interest. First of all, Olmert enjoys attacking
Livni. After it looked as though they had resumed a normal relationship and even talked about running together − something happened the week or two before her decision to run and his decision not to run. In private conversations, Olmert talks about her with the tough language he used in the period of the Winograd Committee report on the Second Lebanon War or during the period of his police interrogations. He also relates that MKs who abandoned Kadima for Hatnuah are expressing remorse.

About two weeks before the deadline for submitting party lists of candidates ‏(December 6‏), Olmert went abroad for eight days. Until then, he and Livni had been in constant touch. During his stay in the United States, Olmert broke off contact. Livni left messages but he didn’t get back to her. However, he did speak with others, and at length.

It’s possible that someone ‏(male‏) or someone ‏(female‏), or more than one someone, told him things they heard about what Livni was saying about him, about integrity and corruption, about who attracts voters and who frightens them off. But that was not the main reason for the break. Olmert is also thinking about two years’ time, after all the judicial affairs are behind him. He believes the third Netanyahu government will find it hard to survive four years. When it collapses, Olmert will need a political base and an organizational infrastructure. The only platform for that is Kadima. That’s why he’s doing all he can to keep it alive.

The waiting game

On Monday night seven young people, aged 28-30 and with undergraduate or master’s degrees, met in a private home in Tel Aviv to usher in the new year. They vote for what’s known as the center-left bloc, and shared their intentions. Only one said he knew for certain which party he would vote for. Five admitted they were undecided among most of the parties of the bloc, and another’s thoughts were scattered all over the political map between the two blocs.

The “there’s no one to vote for” mantra is uttered with a sigh of despair wherever two or more voters of this genre meet. You hardly find voters there who are reconciled to one party. The closer we come to election day, the more the voters will home in on the party they will finally back, using the process of elimination: which of them is least bad, which is least irritating in the current state of affairs.

The last five days of the campaign, when the law forbids the publication of polls − in this case between Friday, January 18 and Tuesday, January 22 − are problematic. ‏(Though not such as will change the balance between the blocs, which is unequivocally tilted toward the right.‏) In the last five days of the 2006 election, the Pensioners Party soared from two seats to seven. Even today, parties which are currently below the voting threshold needed to enter the Knesset ‏(such as Eldad Yaniv’s Eretz Hadasha party‏) could surprise us and collect more than the 2 percent − some say the 2.4 percent − needed to enter our parliament.

The surfing game

The voting surveys that are being published almost daily are a type of opium for specific masses: politicians, journalists, researchers, Internet commenters and other addicts. It’s an unavoidable media phenomenon that characterizes the last stretch of election campaigns in every democracy.

All in all, the differences between the polls are minimal. What they all have in common is the method: They are still conducted the old way, with pollsters calling only landlines of households and interviewing whoever happens to pick up. Nowadays, when the landline rings − on the assumption that the home is still connected to one − it’s probably either a pollster or grandma.

The polling firms are the only places that haven’t yet recognized the existence of the cellular era. Large groups, which are growing rapidly − mainly of the young but also of the not-so-young − have stopped answering the landline at home or have disconnected it. The mobile phone and the Web are the only means of communication in the apartment. That audience is not represented in all the surveys. The possibility of statistical deviation exists.

Prof. Camil Fuchs, from the Department of Statistics at Tel Aviv University, analyzes the public opinion surveys conducted for Haaretz by the Dialog company. Parallel to every phone poll, Fuchs does an Internet poll among a panel of surfers. The panel consists of tens of thousands of people who have volunteered to respond to polls from time to time. Fuchs is in possession of demographic details about all the panel volunteers, and also about their previous voting patterns. He sends the questions by e-mail and they respond. In every poll he chooses a sample from his database that represents previous voting patterns, and also one that represents the population demographically.

Seemingly, the data from the Internet poll should be very similar to the data of the telephone poll. But they are not. Here are a few examples. In the Internet survey conducted at the beginning of this week, Labor and Meretz each get one more seat than they did in the telephone poll conducted on the same day ‏(17 for Labor via the Internet vs. 16 via the phone; and 5 for Meretz on the Web vs. 4 on the phone‏). For Meretz, that is a significant jump.

Moreover, Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which received 9 seats in the telephone poll, got 13 seats on the Internet; and Habayit Hayehudi-National Union, which was the recipient of 14 seats by phone, rose to 17 seats on the Web, equaling Labor as the second-largest party. But the real story is Likud-Beiteinu. The phone survey gave it 34 seats, but in the Internet poll it plummeted to 26 seats − one less than Likud has in the outgoing Knesset.

“Factually, it is true that audiences who are accessible only via mobile phones or the Internet are unrepresented in the polls,” Fuchs says. “The question is the degree to which the results are biased or misleading because of this. What’s needed is a fusion of methods. Unfortunately, we will be able to assess the correct measure of fusion only in retrospect, after the results of the polls are known and the appropriate statistical models created. In any event, we should be aware that there are pockets of the population that are not being reached by the pollsters and whose influence will grow as use of the new media spreads.”