The letters that identify the Likud and Kadima ballot slips might be better replaced with two large question marks reflecting the true contest for the country's leadership in the 2009 elections. Mr. "Has he changed?" versus Ms. "Is she fit?" That is the dilemma voters will face on February 10, and it is dictating the competitors' very different strategies.
The polls give Tzipi Livni an edge on the question of character, while Benjamin Netanyahu has the upper hand when it comes to substance. She is viewed as more judicious and less prone to embarrassing imbroglios, while he is considered more knowledgeable and experienced on both security and the economy. In order to leverage their comparative advantages, Livni must emphasize herself, while Netanyahu must emphasize his positions.
All this is evident in the candidates' behavior. Livni's campaign posters, featuring a digitally enhanced picture of her, say "What's good for the country." That may not be as crude as "Netanyahu is good for the Jews," his 1996 campaign slogan, but the message is the same: The other candidate is bad for Israel.
As for questions about her suitability for the Prime Minister's Office, Livni is trying to deflect these by stressing her current role as statesman and national leader, showcasing her diplomatic trips abroad, her farewell photograph with U.S. President George W. Bush, her cautious involvement in the economic emergency program and, most importantly, the claim that her support for negotiations with the Palestinians will ensure smooth sailing with the incoming Obama administration, whereas the rejectionist Netanyahu is liable to clash with the new American president.
Netanyahu has ignored his rival completely, as if Livni were not even in his league. Instead, he has presented action plans for diplomacy, the economy, education and law enforcement, relying on his image as a reformer with a record of getting things done in the Finance Ministry, as well as on his warnings - which proved prophetic - that the disengagement from Gaza would lead to rockets over Ashkelon.
To deflect questions about his problematic character, Netanyahu is bringing character witnesses: a list of new and returning Likud members, first and foremost Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. The fact that his former rivals are now standing by his side is supposed to demonstrate that he really has changed. After all, wouldn't they know best?
Candidates always try to push "change." This is especially true following Barack Obama's stunning ascent from nowhere to the White House. But both Livni and Netanyahu will have trouble getting the public to buy it.
Netanyahu has matured, and has learned from Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert that he needs to pay attention to other politicians, devote time to them and listen to them in meetings. He has also succeeded in getting this year's crop of hitchhikers aboard the Likud bus, and has quietly renewed his old alliance with Shas. He has moderated his behavior, but his positions have not budged one inch. Netanyahu has been reciting the same mantras for years. What has changed is the public's willingness to hear them, due to its disappointment with the Camp David summit, the disengagement and the Second Lebanon War. He is not offering innovation and surprises. Rather, he seems like a student who flunked but is seeking a retest with a new teacher.
Livni underwent a personal change when she rebelled against her family tradition and switched from "both banks of the Jordan" to supporting a division of the land with the Palestinians. But her candidacy for the prime ministership, a direct continuation of her terms as a minister, represents continuity rather than change. However hard she tries to distance herself from the unpopular Olmert, Livni continues to sit beside him at cabinet meetings. Even if Olmert, Abraham Hirchson and perhaps Haim Ramon will be absent from the next Knesset, the Kadima slate is still comprised of members of the current government, not a group of revolutionaries.
Kadima, which is expected only to maintain its current strength following the elections, has no room for new stars - unlike Likud, whose Knesset representation is expected to grow. Therefore, it is hard for her to respond to the "momentum" generated by the new faces joining Likud.
The fact that the parties are virtually tied in the polls guarantees that as election day approaches, the question marks will straighten into exclamation marks, and the battle will become much more personal. Livni's campaign will "remind the public of who Netanyahu is," while Netanyahu's campaign will present Livni as a thin coating of whitewash over Kadima's corrupt, failed gang.
The recent revelation about Finance Minister Roni Bar-On's double voting in the budget vote a few years ago was merely a harbinger of the upcoming mudslinging.
Both Livni and Netanyahu will try to upset each other and throw each other off balance in ways that will reinforce their respective negative stereotypes: Livni as irresolute and hysterical, Netanyahu as a braggart and a liar. Only then can they prove that he has not changed and that she is unfit.
Under such conditions, the winner will be the one who can adhere to campaign discipline, keep his or her mouth shut and keep problematic or unpopular candidates off their party's slate. The challenge for their campaign managers and image consultants will be to keep their candidates from verbal gaffes, even as the rival candidate drives them crazy with attack ads.
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