Kadima Still in the Driver's Seat

With less than five weeks till election day, Kadima remains comfortably ahead of its rivals with 39 projected Knesset seats, according to a Haaretz-Channel 10 News poll conducted Tuesday evening. The party maintains a healthy lead over the Labor Party and Likud despite having dropped five seats since the illness of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Labor is predicted to receive 19 Knesset seats, while the Likud is at 14 seats.

At this rate, Kadima will have no trouble setting up any coalition it likes - with Labor, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Meretz and Yisrael Beiteinu; or with the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Kadima could even form a coalition without the Likud or Labor - with the ultra-Orthodox parties and Yisrael Beiteinu it will have 62 Knesset seats, according to the poll.

Following the merger of the right-wing National Union and National Religious Party, the joint list climbed from 10 to 11 seats at the Likud's expense. Meretz is maintaining stability with five projected Knesset seats. Shas is weakening a little (nine seats), and United Torah Judaism is strengthening (seven seats).

No significant changes have occurred in the position of the three prime ministerial candidates. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is still leading as the most suitable candidate. The public even raised his weekly grade this week to 5.45, from 5.30 last week.

But the most remarkable thing about Olmert is his political positioning. The public currently views him as "left," while on entering his post on January 9, he was placed at the center of the political map, with a slight tendency toward the right. Following the evacuation of Amona and transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority, Olmert has moved from 2.97 to 3.16 on a scale of 1 to 5, with five marking the left, 1 the right and 3 the center.

Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu's position remains unchanged at 1.99 - far right. Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz has moved further left, from 3.89 on January 9 to 4.02.

The poll was conducted Tuesday evening by Dialog, under the supervision of Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, among a representative sample of 635 people with a 4 percent margin of error.

Although the affair of Olmert's house sale already had been broadcast Tuesday evening, it is doubtful the interviewees were aware of the details.

Floating votes

The poll indicates that the "floating votes" - people who have yet to decide how to vote - comprise 18 of the Knesset's 120 seats. Floating voters were broken down via additional questions, and divided among the various parties.

The paralysis gripping the Likud is beginning to look irreversible. Netanyahu plucked two aces from the electoral card pack in the last two months - Sharon's collapse and his being replaced by Olmert and Hamas' rise to power. Yet nothing has happened. The Likud rose by just two-three Knesset seats. The Israeli voter, it appears, has made up his mind.

Asked how they defined the demeanor of Olmert's government versus Hamas, 42 percent of the interviewees replied it was "too soft," 38 percent said it was appropriate for the circumstances, and 12 percent said it was too harsh.

A very large majority of Kadima and Labor voters believes Olmert acted appropriately. Now the Likud is pinning its hopes on Netanyahu's heroic struggle against the hated central committee in his effort to have the Likud Knesset list elected via primaries rather than by the panel.

However, it is unclear whether this move will bring the Likud more votes, and if so, how many.

Netanyahu may have failed to project himself as a good prime ministerial candidate, but still is viewed as a good finance minister.

Asked to choose among the following candidates for finance minister in the next cabinet - Netanyahu, Peretz, Professor Avishai Braverman (Labor), and former minister in the Finance Ministry Meit Sheetrit - interviewers gave Netanyahu 34 percent compared to 20.5 percent to Braverman, 16 percent for Sheetrit, and 12 percent for Peretz.

Netanyahu's return to the treasury, in Olmert's government, seems like a remote dream today - with 14 Knesset seats, the Likud will remain in the opposition.