The Day After - Already?

It wasn't an easy week for Likud or Labor, and meanwhile, Olmert keeps planning his coalition.

The final days of the current election campaign are like the last five minutes of a basketball game in which one team maintains a 16-point lead over the other. For all practical purposes the game is over. The crowd is already starting to get up, stretch and trickle toward the exits. Only the diehard fans of the losing team continue to hope for a miracle. One three-pointer, then a few more baskets from the foul line, and then the star of the other team will suddenly suffer paralysis - hey, there's still a chance for overtime, theoretical but not entirely off the wall. Or at least for a respectable loss.

Kadima this week received 37-39 seats in most of the polls. For several months the party has maintained a lead of 18-20 seats over Labor, yet it remains an unknown quantity: What will its potential voters do on March 28? Kadima has no history, no past, no tribe of its own. In these elections it looks like only the small parties, which are no longer all that small, have Shiite suicide bombers who will rush around with knives between their teeth on Super Tuesday and pull voters out of the grave and grandmothers out of their wheelchairs - National Union-National Religious Party and Shas, which always brings out more voters than the polls predict, and maybe also Yisrael Beiteinu. Those three parties are gnawing at the Likud. The street fights of the 28th will be fought between the activists of those four parties.

It was not an easy week for Amir Peretz and the Labor Party. They all but disappeared. At best Peretz and his cohorts functioned as a reactions team to Kadima and Ehud Olmert, who dominated the agenda completely. But if things were not easy for Peretz, for Benjamin Netanyahu they were catastrophic: his Likud party lost one seat (in the Haaretz-Channel 10 News survey, Kadima would get 37 seats if elections were held today, Labor 20 and the Likud 16) and Netanyahu lost the momentum he gained after depriving the Likud Central Committee of its clout.

Where are the six extra seats Netanyahu promised the Likud would get by canceling the election of candidates for the Knesset by the central committee? Where are the seats he promised the Likud would get if the party left the government? Where are the masses of seats the Likud was supposed to get thanks to his election as the party's leader, the victory of Hamas, the election of the party's list, Ariel Sharon's hospitalization, and the installation of Natan Sharanksy and Yuli Edelstein on the Likud list?

Netanyahu is a seasoned campaigner, but this week he behaved like a greenhorn. His big mistake was the campaign in which he courted Peretz, Avigdor Lieberman (National Union) and Eli Yishai (Shas) in an attempt to forge a large enough bloc of seats to block Kadima. They replied with a fairly insulting nyet, and rushed to tell the media. Thus, with his own hands Netanyahu wove himself into the Kadima spin: for the past week Olmert and his people have been trying to drag the campaign into a "day after" mode in order to instill the message that it's all over and the only thing left to worry about is the number of seats.

Olmert himself said this about a week ago. His aides then leaked to the daily Maariv that his candidate for the White House-like post of chief of staff of the Prime Minister's Bureau is Yoram Turbovich (whom they call "Turbo"). The next report to appear was that the cabinet secretary, Yisrael Maimon, has acceded to Olmert's request to stay on after the elections. And yesterday they let it be known that if the Likud ousts Netanyahu after the elections, the party under the leadership of Silva Shalom will be invited into the coalition. Every day brings a new Kadima-coalition / coalition-Kadima item. If Sharon were to suddenly snap out of his coma and look at the papers, he would undoubtedly conclude that the coalition talks are already in their midst.

But this is not in the interest of the Likud. The Likud wants to talk about Olmert's plan to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank, about Hamas and about the Qassam rockets. From the moment Netanyahu launched coalition feelers, which ended in tears from his point of view, he played into Kadima's hands. For two days the media dealt with his coalition combinations, with Kadima pouring oil on the fire and warning against a "stinking maneuver," 2006-style - the creation of a coalition of election robbers: Likud-Labor. There is nothing wrong with trying to erect political barriers against a rival party; the trick is not to get caught.

Olmert, too, is organizing the next coalition, sending envoys to Shas and United Torah Judaism and Lieberman; but those envoys are leaving no fingerprints. All we need is to be caught sitting with Shas, a senior figure in Kadima said this week, and within two days, one of the two parties that emerged after the split of the anti-clerical Shinui will start to register in the polls.

As if all that weren't enough, the operation at the Jericho prison made a shambles of the Likud campaign, which is warning against the lack of experience and the weakness of Olmert and his government in the face of the Palestinians. Netanyahu, who has effectively been left without a campaign, repeated the mistake made by Amir Peretz three months ago by convening a "security consultation" in his office in the elegant Europe House in Tel Aviv. He shook the mothballs off Moshe Arens, who not long ago celebrated his 80th birthday, off the pensioner Dan Shomron (who was filmed on Channel 10 identifying himself to the photographers: I am Dan Shomron, I was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces) and off some Mossad espionage agency retirees. They sat there grim-faced and looked at one another. They looked but said nothing: there wasn't a whole lot to say. There is only one security figure who can inject energy into the Likud's veins. His name is Moshe Ya'alon and he is the former chief of staff. Netanyahu would give a lot to have Ya'alon at his side. He would even let him beat him at chess. But Ya'alon, who is at a research institute in Washington, is not returning phone calls. I am in a cooling-off period, he says.

Katsav's Independence Day

Contrary to what some politicians are saying, the president of the state is not "obliged by law to ask the candidate who has the most recommendations [from other parties] to form the government." Article 7A of the Basic Law: The Government states, "When it is time to form a new government, the president of the state, after consulting with the representatives of the Knesset factions, shall charge a Knesset member who so agrees with forming a government."

That's all. Someone has to agree. This clause gives President Moshe Katsav total autonomy in deciding whom to entrust with forming the next government. Thus, even if Netanyahu and Peretz come up, separately, with more recommendations than Kadima gets, that will not guarantee them the premiership. According to the polls, the right-wing bloc, including the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), will get about 50 seats; the left-wing bloc, including the Arab parties, will get about 34 seats. If Kadima gets, say, 33 seats, Olmert will get the nod from the president, because Kadima is the key to any government. Without Kadima, neither the right nor the left can form a government. There is also the public consideration: the president cannot ignore the fact that one party has won the most seats and has a large lead over the second-largest party.

In closed groups, Olmert is talking about a "stable government of action" which he would like to form. He sees Labor as a natural partner in such a coalition, but hasn't a clue what portfolio to give Amir Peretz. A senior figure in Kadima said this week that the party has no intention of giving the finance portfolio to another party. A ruling party does not part with the treasury. The hope in Kadima is that Peretz will accept a "mega-economic-social portfolio," some sort of combination of social affairs, employment and health (and a handsome budget) and the chairmanship of the economic-social cabinet.

Shas will almost certainly be in the government. From the outset of the campaign the party's spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, instructed his representatives: Government at any price! United Torah Judaism will also be there. It will have the chairmanship of the powerful Finance Committee of the Knesset. These parties already know that they will be part of the next government. The question is what will happen with the Likud.

Silvan Shalom went wild when he heard Netanyahu declare, at the beginning of the week, that the Likud will not be part of a government that will be established on the basis of Olmert's political plan. Who decided that, he shouted, in what forum was that decided? Why are we painting ourselves into a corner?

Let no one have any doubt, says an Olmert confidant, the political plan will be part of the government's guidelines and anyone who wants to join will have to sign off on it. There is no doubt that Meretz will be happy to be there. But it's hard to see the Likud joining a government on the basis of that plan, even if Shalom heads it after the elections.

Campaign on ice

Two weeks ago, the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, received an interesting request: a certain millionaire, never mind from what country, sought his authorization to launch a huge, money-is-no-object campaign against Ehud Olmert. Through his lawyer, the businessman, who officially is not linked to any party or any candidate, asked for the attorney general's okay for the campaign. The okay was needed because the person behind the initiative wants to remain anonymous. The law looks askance at anonymous campaigns and the person does not want to be in breach of the law.

As of yesterday morning, when this was being written, 12 days before the elections, he did not yet receive the go-ahead. The view in the Justice Ministry is that the businessman's original plan was to spend millions of shekels and flood the country and the papers and Web sites with thousands of anti-Olmert posters and messages.

This of course brings to mind the "Netanyahu is good for the Jews" campaign mounted by the millionaire Australian businessman Yosef Gutnik, which flooded Israel a few days before the 1996 elections and led to the closing of the gap between Netanyahu and Peres. Things have changed since then: the law has been made stricter and will no longer allow such gimmicks without public accountability. The view is that as long as the person in question retains his anonymity and his political connections, he will not get authorization. But if the magic formula is found and the drive is launched, this moribund campaign will have some last-minute life injected into it.