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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his advisors are looking at the public opinion polls and finding it hard to believe - Kadima is continuing to gallop toward a potential 45 Knesset seats. Their only fear is of a new scandal and of the creation of a 61-member Knesset coalition, which would enable Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu or Labor Party chair MK Amir Peretz to form a government before the elections.

"Nu," Ariel Sharon asks his advisors every time they report to him on another flattering survey. "Do they already understand there that it was a mistake to expel me from the Likud?"

The advisors giggle. So does Sharon. Every day or two they look at the public opinion polls and find it hard to believe. The sky is the limit. A few days after Sharon split the Likud, his team estimated that Kadima would reach 35 or 36 Knesset seats and stop there. But Kadima continues to gallop ahead. Shimon Peres brought Knesset seats. Tzachi Hanegbi brought Knesset seats. Even Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz - according to a public opinion poll by Dr. Mina Tzemach for the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth that was taken on Sunday evening, about six hours after the defense minister's press conference - brought Knesset seats.

About a week ago, after their initial calculations of 36 Knesset seats were superseded, Sharon's team - pollster Kalman Geier and strategic advisors Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad and Lior Horev - went back to the drawing boards. At the end of last week they estimated that the final ceiling for Kadima would be 45 Knesset seats, and floor would be 25. "No one reaches the peak of his potential," said the advisors. Since then, Kadima has been tickling the threshold of its maximal potential: between 41 and 42 Knesset seats in the latest surveys.

According to Geier's calculations, the maximal potential for a Labor headed by Amir Peretz is around 28 Knesset seats, and its floor is less than 20. These estimates are supported by pollsters from the press. This is the analysis of Sharon's advisors: About 40 percent of Labor voters have already gone over to Kadima, and in the meantime there are no signs that they are intending to return to Peretz. This leaves Labor with 12.5 Knesset seats. It is assumed that Peretz will succeed in attracting 50 percent of the Meretz-Yahad voters, or 3 Knesset seats (15.5), another three from the Likud (18.5), one Knesset seat from Shas (19.5) and one from Shinui. This would give Labor a maximum of 20.5 seats.

This is the most accurate estimate, as of now, by Sharon's strategists with respect to the Labor Party. They do not see additional dramatic crossovers from the Likud, or from Shinui, Meretz and Shas, to Labor. This is, of course, as things stand now. Only a new, unexpected development, like new information or a scandal, could change the situation and reshuffle the entire deck.

The 61 MK scenario

The most extreme scenario, of course, is the postponement of the elections and the establishment of a new government during the current Knesset term - the 61 option. Like the weather, this is a scenario that no one stops talking about even though the chances of it happening are extremely slim. But the temptation to think about it is great: Deposing Sharon from the premiership for 10 months and forming a new government, headed by Amir Peretz or Benjamin Netanyahu, would also be a kind of big bang, the second within several weeks. In this situation, in which Sharon is condemned to being the opposition leader until the statutory election date in November 2006 - Sharon would likely retire to his ranch, Kadima would crumble within a day, its remains would reunite with the Likud, or with other parties, many of its members would retire from political life and everything would return to its place safe and sound.

On Saturday evening, and even more so on this last Sunday, most of the information reaching the media about the 61 scenario came from Sharon's innermost circles. The prime minister's people became the spreaders of the 61 scenario. They fed the media with every scrap of information about this move, reported on every meeting, on every probe, on every shred of an idea that did or did not come up in the rival camp. Their strategy was simple: The more the matter is in the headlines, the smaller the chances that it will happen. The more the media cover it, the more some of its potential participants will be pushed into a corner and will have to issue denials and denunciations.

This is exactly what happened yesterday, in the press and in the electronic media, with the main player in the plan - Labor Party Chair Amir Peretz. He was compelled to deny again and again that he intended to take part in this conspiracy. It was not hard to hear in his voice more than a trace of infatuation with the idea of serving as a "social" prime minister until the elections, but the bottom line in his remarks was a total and unambiguous rejection of the possibility. Yesterday morning Sharon's people felt that the mission had been accomplished, but they are far from resting on their laurels.

Until December 29, the final date by law for establishing a replacement government, they will be on guard. They successfully thwarted the previous plan to establish a Likud-Shinui-ultra-Orthodox-right government. Shas chairman MK Eli Yishai and MKs Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, representing the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, promised Sharon that they would not lend a hand to the establishment of a replacement government in this Knesset. In return, Sharon's people promised that the two ultra-Orthodox factions would be part of Sharon's next government. Litzman is slated to chair the Knesset Finance Committee in the 17th Knesset too. Under that same agreement, the ultra-Orthodox will recommend to the president that he give the mandate to establish the next government to Sharon.

Ben Eliyahu on the waiting list

"What about Eitan Ben Eliyahu? Why shouldn't we bring him?" asked one of Sharon's advisors at a meeting of the ranch forum. This idea came up about a week ago, a few days before Mofaz joined. The feeling then in the forum was that another security star was needed to join former Shin Bet security service head Avi Dichter. However, Mofaz came and Major General (ret.) Ben Eliyahu's candidacy was dropped, at least as of now, from the agenda. One of Sharon's close associates who is friendly with Ben Eliyahu explained this week that the former air force commander would not have joined in order to warm a Knesset chair but only in order to become a minister. However, said the source, there is no more room there at the top. It is very crowded and it is now clear that quite a few ministers, deputy ministers and Knesset members who see themselves as natural candidates for serving in the next government can expect to be bitterly disappointed.

In response to the mention of his name in the context of joining Kadima, Ben Eliyahu said that he had not been contacted and that in any case he was obligated to his business commitments. "However," said Ben Eliyahu, "on the political map, if I were to join any party, it would be Kadima."

Ben Eliyahu is on the waiting list, but if there is no change, within the next few days the Kadima party will announce that a young candidate named Yoel Hasson is on its Knesset list. Until not too long ago Hasson was the chairman of the Young Likud. Sharon is continuing to take bites out of the party he has left. After the primaries in the Likud, more activists from the Likud will join Kadima.