ANALYSIS / A Time of Reflection for Netanyahu, Livni, and Barak

Netanyahu is asking himself how the devil he lost about 10 seats in the polls in less than two months.

This morning, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu will be asking himself how the devil he managed to lose about 10 seats in the polls in less than two months - one seat for every two advisors - and thereby turn a certain victory into a tight race, a walk in the park into a stretcher march.

This morning, Tzipi Livni will be asking herself how the devil she will manage to form a government, even if her Kadima party edges out Likud. And whether a government that will exist only by the grace of Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman really represents the different, cleaner brand of politics she promised, or advances her stated goal of making peace.

This morning, Ehud Barak will be asking himself how the devil, despite the fighting in Gaza and the admiration it won him, his Labor Party is once again shedding seats, to the point where he was forced to admit publicly that he is running only for the post of defense minister, not prime minister. Is the Defense Ministry really his glass ceiling?

This morning, Avigdor Lieberman will be asking himself whether his great victory may not turn out to be his downfall. What if, for instance, the attorney general bars him from serving as a senior minister because of the police investigation against him? Or if the entire world ostracizes him as an Israeli Jean-Marie Le Pen, forcing future prime ministers to leave him out of their governments? Or if his meteoric rise prompts the law enforcement agencies to finally finish their eternal investigation and recommend that he be indicted?

Tonight, the race for the public's votes will end and the race for the parties' votes - their recommendation to the president as to who should be prime minister - will begin. What started as one of the most boring, low-energy campaigns in memory has almost overnight turned into a political drama. But it is a drama with definite limits: It is already clear that the Likud-rightist-religious bloc will come out ahead. The question that generates the drama - whether Likud or Kadima will emerge as the largest party - is actually of secondary importance. Regardless of which party wins more votes, the candidate who gets the president's nod to try to form a government next week will be the one with the best chance of doing so.

If, as people from both parties claimed yesterday, the gap between Likud and Kadima has continued to narrow, the race will be decided by three things: organization, organization and organization. All those floating voters will finally have to decide. They will not be happy with their choice, but they always end up voting. Voting and crying.

Yesterday's big event was Barak's public admission that he is running for defense minister, not prime minister. The penny finally dropped - as always with him, belatedly. His associates urged him to go one step further and declare that Livni will not form the next government, so there is no point in voting for her. But that was too much for him. His preference would be for the three major parties to sit together in the next government, perhaps with one or two religious parties thrown in. And that could yet come to pass.

As for yesterday's comic interlude, we had Netanyahu's joint appearance with the national orphan, Yitzhak Rabin's son Yuval. In a stumbling speech, Rabin announced that Netanyahu had "promised" to form a unity government. He then muttered under his breath that he himself intended to vote Labor. But that did not matter: Netanyahu had already gotten the picture he wanted.

What Rabin's parents would have thought of their son's performance is better left to the imagination.