Likud Has Gone From Certain Victory to Battle With Kadima

Whatever Livni proposes to Lieberman, Netanyahu will offer him more, and visa versa.

Click here for exclusive Haaretz coverage of the elections in Israel

At exactly this point in time, one day before the polls opened for the election of the prime minister on February 6, 2001, MK Ariel Sharon sat with his assistants at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv.

"Imagine what will happen if tomorrow night I go on stage and tell the crowd 'thank you from the bottom of my heart for the confidence which you have shown in me, but I just wanted to gauge my support. I'm not interested in the position. I am going back to my ranch,'" Sharon said. "Do you think it will make headlines?"

Sharon's successor as the head of the Likud, who sits in that same room now, can't exhibit the same measure of self-confidence or humor.

In these times, there is nothing further from Netanyahu than humor or self-confidence. Or emotional peace of mind or level-headedness. What seemed like certain victory until a week or two ago for him and the Likud suddenly became an open battle with Kadima. Weekend opinion polls gave the impression that things could reverse course to such an extent that some Kadima activists who had planned to announce that they were coming home to Likud suddenly reconsidered.

Someone who remembered that he really was a Kadima member was outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who soberly announced Sunday night that he would vote Tuesday for Kadima under the leadership of Tzipi Livni, ("this woman" as he is used to calling her).

He apparently stopped deliberating and ran to tell his friends. With regard to his opinion of Livni, her qualifications, abilities, and fitness for the job, he has told it straight to dozens of people in recent years.

Forty-eight hours before the polls close, he discovered a different Livni than the one who he knew and loved. That, of course, is his right, but one must understand the context. Olmert is planning his comeback, after he is cleared, as he hopes, of his legal problems. In order to return to head Kadima in another two or three years, it's better that he support Kadima.

Even if Kadima gets one or two more seats in the Knesset than Likud, Netanyahu, together with other right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, will be substantially larger than the center-left bloc. And even if Lieberman joins Livni, she needs another right-wing party to form a government, because Meretz and the Arab parties won't support a government which includes Lieberman.

Livni's bloc, which today stands at about 52 or 53 seats, would lose 12 or 13 spots the moment she goes with Lieberman. And Lieberman, before he recommends that the president tap Livni to form a government, will have to think long and hard if she is capable of forming a stable coalition; otherwise he will commit suicide twice, by supporting her against the will of most of his voters and again if her attempt to form a government fails.

Livni's people said Sunday night that the day after the election, Livni will give Lieberman two incentives: a civil marriage law which will be proposed at the Knesset's opening session, and a bill to change the election system. If Lieberman blinks, Netanyahu won't hesitate and will make a similar proposal in spite of Shas. Because in any event, Shas has no chance with Livni.

Whatever Livni proposes to Lieberman, Netanyahu will offer him more, and visa versa. Lieberman's saying "paradise and much more" (in response to the question of what's happening), could come true for him on the coalition level, too, whether he plays ball for a time between Tzipi and Bibi or not. In any event the prevailing assumption in the political system is that Lieberman will go with his natural partner, Netanyahu.