And Now, a Clean Slate?

Frightened by the sentencing of Omri Sharon and the conviction of Naomi Blumenthal, many politicians are seeking legal advice on what is permissible in an election campaign.

I am not a saint, Omri says, and I did not expect to get a prize for what I did, but I also did not expect to be screwed. Other people who were in similar situations behaved differently, but still got different treatment. He does not say explicitly that he got screwed because his name is Sharon and not, say, Buzaglo, but that is what he thinks. He sees how politicians from other parties are trying to attach him to Kadima and Kadima to him. I am not a member of the party, he says, I am not on the Knesset list, I did not sign the charter. There is no way to use me to hurt the party.

On Wednesday, the day after he was sentenced to nine months in prison for raising illegal campaign contributions for his father, Ariel Sharon, he sat by his father's bedside in Hadassah Medical Center. A person who was speaking to him on the phone suddenly heard a long beep. I hope that's not the monitor, the person on the phone said. Omri Sharon doubled over with laughter. He has a sense of humor, especially the black variety. A whole industry of jokes, for the in-crowd only, has sprung up by the prime minister's bedside in the past six weeks. Here is one of them: Ariel Sharon suddenly regains consciousness, looks around, and asks: What's going on here? Who the hell brought back Gush Katif?

Back to Omri. In the past six weeks, he not only went through the agony of awaiting the verdict in the trial but also experienced the loss of the tremendous power he had wielded. There were increasingly fewer phone calls, beeper messages, e-mails. Above all, he endured the kind of private hell that thousands of sons and daughters experience who spend their days in the hospital (in less comfortable conditions than he and his brother, Gilad, have) by the bedside of ailing parents who hover between life and death, cut off from the world. That, too, is a type of punishment, but punishment of a different type.

The verdict in the Omri Sharon trial tells a brutal tale of fraud, perjury, fictitious checks, manipulations heaped upon manipulations, intrigues upon intrigues. Does Sharon deserve to be jailed? Everyone has their own opinion. That is less important. What is important is that the case of MK Naomi Blumenthal (Likud), who was convicted the day before Sharon of bribery and obstructing justice - also in connection with an election campaign - and the Sharon affair have frightened many politicians.

As the Knesset election campaign began in earnest, the legal department of the Knesset was inundated with requests from MKs who want written opinions that set forth what is permitted and what is prohibited. A senior figure in the Knesset says he has never seen anything like it. It's worth waiting for the report by the state comptroller about the 2006 elections: if the trend discerned by Knesset officials proves accurate, that document will be far thinner and far more boring than the previous report.

Credible, but not capable

On Tuesday of this week, Roni Rimon, the PR man who is managing the election campaign of the Labor Party, faced a group of tired, skeptical and cynical reporters. Behind him, on wooden holders, were Labor's new slogans: "Fighting terror, defeating poverty," "Fighting terror, defeating corruption," "Fighting terror, winning in health," and so on. This was the umpteenth Labor campaign that was launched for the umpteenth time in the party's cold, empty conference room. Suddenly they remembered about terrorism. Suddenly they got it: in Israel, terrorism and the confrontation take precedence over corruption, the minimum wage and old-age pensions.

The more tiresome the issues, the loftier the words. They become detached from the ground of reality and float into the sky. "On March 29," Rimon said, referring to the day after the elections, "Amir Peretz will move to a new home. At least during the week he will be moving to Balfour Street in Jerusalem [the official residence of the prime minister]." Why is that, one reporter asked, is he going to demonstrate there? "You'll see," Rimon insisted. "He will be moving on March 29 to the prime minister's residence." Will he move there after Ehud Olmert has moved in, another reporter asked. Rimon sighed. "I hope you will be just as cynical when you meet with Olmert."

Two days after the Labor posters went up across the country, and were drenched in the rain, Labor fell from 21 seats to 19 in the Haaretz poll (the poll gave Kadima 40 seats and the Likud 13). Now Labor is waiting for the election commercials on television. Maybe they will generate the turnabout. The international election campaign expert Stanley Greenberg, who worked with Ehud Barak and is now on the Peretz team, related that in 1999, two days after the election commercials began, Barak soared in the polls. It turned out that the Russian-speaking voters were suddenly exposed to the stories of Barak's heroic exploits in his army days and a mass defection began from Benjamin Netanyahu to the Labor camp.

Labor hopes that a similar miracle will befall its candidate on March 7, when the commercials will begin to be broadcast. But no one is harboring any illusions: Peretz was never photographed on the wing of a Sabena plane after freeing hostages of Palestinian terrorists. He has never killed terrorists. He is liable to remind the Russians of Stalin.

"If we get 24-25 seats, that will be a very good outcome," a senior member of Labor's campaign team said this week. "That will make it possible for us to influence the composition of the next government."

That is the goal - to increase the party's strength by 20 percent - and its achievement will be considered a major success. "In our focus groups," the senior campaign team person said, "we open with the question: What is it that bothers you? And 80 percent of the respondents do not even mention Hamas. They talk about the violence in society, unemployment, social security." Why isn't this reflected in the polls? "People believe in Peretz's good intentions but do not believe he is capable of implementing them. He still looks like the chairman of the Histadrut [labor federation], not like a prime minister."

People are after stability, the senior member of the campaign staff explains. They want a normal life. They do not want more changes of government. That is one of the factors that is playing into the hands of Kadima - the collective desire not to rock the boat. Asked if he would like to see Barak high on the party's list of Knesset candidates, he replies, "I would like to see [Shimon] Peres and Barak."

With Peres it's too late, but not with Barak "There is no doubt that a leader is tested by his ability to unite his party," the senior campaign person says. In his view, Kadima will not be mortally hurt by a wave of terrorism, because the party is not perceived by the public as being weak on terrorism (despite the message of the Likud campaign). Labor, though, will be hurt.

In the past few days, the senior figure is asked, more and more people in Labor have reached the conclusion that Peretz has to change his strategy and say to the public that it is clear that Olmert will form the next government but that he wants to be there, too, and with his colleagues heading the social welfare ministries and influencing the government's economic policy. (In 1992, Meretz adopted this line and won 12 seats. It is also pursuing a similar path today. Make us strong, says Meretz MK Haim Oron, because if Kadima gets only 35 seats and five of its MKs defect in midterm, who will Olmert turn to?) Why should Peretz not do the same? Why does he have to run for prime minister - why not for finance minister?

The man smiles. "No comment," he replies. Then he added, "There is no doubt that in these elections, people - quite a few people - will vote tactically."

A portfolio for Peretz

What's happening to the Likud is flabbergasting. According to the Haaretz poll, in the next six weeks the united National Union - National Religious Party list (10 seats) could yet replace the Likud (13 seats) as the third largest party in the Knesset, after Kadima and Labor. The Likud's religious voters are moving to the party headed by MKs Benny Elon (National Union) and Zevulun Orlev (NRP). The Russians feel comfortable with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party and with Kadima, and the mainstream has long since gone to Kadima. The Likud remains with the hard core, with the voters who have supported it since the period of Menachem Begin's Herut party.

Olmert's clear preference, says a confidant of the acting prime minister, is to form a government with the Labor Party, given the reasonable likelihood that he will indeed be the one to form the government. At present, Kadima and Labor have 60 Knesset seats between them. After that it will be possible to bring in the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) at a minimum price, Yisrael Beiteinu, which is eager to rejoin the executive branch, or even Meretz. If Kadima gets 40 seats, more or less, and Labor gets 20, more or less, Olmert will not have to give Labor one of the three senior portfolios - Finance, Defense or Foreign Affairs. He will be able to keep them all for Kadima. Tzipi Livni will remain foreign minister, Shaul Mofaz will remain defense minister (unless Olmert pulls off a surprise and replaces him with Dan Meridor or Ehud Barak - and Mofaz's circle is seriously worried about this possibility), and the treasury will go to Meir Sheetrit or Avraham Hirchson.

But if Kadima gets 35 seats and Labor 25? In that scenario, Kadima will have to give up one of the senior portfolios. The only portfolio that is "appropriate" for Peretz is the treasury. Olmert, though, will not want to disengage from the treasury, because he and others in the party believe that the ruling party has to control the treasury. What remains for Peretz? people in Kadima are asking. If Labor is offered the defense portfolio, will he agree to give it to Ami Ayalon, a former commander of the Navy and former Shin Bet security service chief? After all, Ayalon views himself as a candidate to succeed Peretz as leader of the Labor Party. Why should Peretz upgrade a potential party rival? And if Labor is offered the Foreign Ministry, will Peretz take it for himself, or appoint Prof. Avishai Braverman or Isaac Herzog to the post?

And how will Tzipi Livni react to that scenario? After all, she voluntarily decided not to contest the leadership of Kadima against Olmert. She also voluntarily gave up the second slot on the Kadima list, knowing she would remain foreign minister after the elections. On the other hand, she constitutes a big threat to Olmert. After the elections, when he is all-powerful, he is liable to separate her from the Foreign Affairs portfolio and leaver her in her other ministry, Justice, or exile her to the treasury in order to cut her down to size. On the third hand, both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who behaved in that way to party rivals, came to a bad political end. It's complicated, but these are "problems of the rich."

An offer he could refuse

Two weeks ago, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) paid a visit to his good friend Dan Meridor, a former justice and finance minister. Rivlin, who is chairman of the Likud's election campaign headquarters, had an offer to make Meridor: come back to the Likud and announce that you support Bibi (Netanyahu). The history of those two - Meridor and Netanyahu - is studded with battles whose roots lie in a bitter personal rivalry and powerful resentment. But Netanyahu says at every opportunity that the best finance minister Israel has ever had (apart from him) is Meridor (true, in 1997 Netanyahu forced Meridor to resign from his government, but that belongs to the past).

Rivlin thought Netanyahu should put Meridor on the Likud Knesset list, or at least promise him a cabinet portfolio in any government of which the Likud will be a part. If Meridor had joined the Likud list - which is stale and has no new faces - he might have been able to breathe a little life into the seemingly moribund party. Netanyahu almost certainly knew about Rivlin's move, though Rivlin will not confirm this.

"I thought that if Meridor were to join the Likud at a time when the public is cold-shouldering the party, it could help our image a lot," Rivlin said this week. "Meridor is the second generation of the movement's founders. True, there were, and are, disagreements between us, but they are definitely within the framework of the differences of approach that exist in our movement."

Meridor himself longs to return to political life. He has a host of occupations at present - from a law practice to activity in the Israel Democracy Institute to membership in security bodies. But he wants something else. He misses the public and governmental work. Now, after having turned down Rivlin's offer and other offers from other parties, he is waiting for an appointment from Olmert.