Party Time

With seismic shifts shaking Israel's parties and four months to go before the elections - light years in campaign terms - there's plenty of scope for mistakes, crises, gains and losses.

The political "bang" whose shock waves are still rocking the foundations of the system, has created a new party: Kadima. But although the name of the party means "forward," its establishment has actually taken the country dozens of years backward. Kadima is a kind of reincarnation of the historic Mapai, Labor's predecessor - a party of ministers, of security officials, of doers, with an elderly and white-haired leader at its head.

The Labor Party, on the other hand, has become Mapam: a social-democratic, left-wing party interested in helping the weak in society, the workers. They hardly mention political issues. Everything is sculpted in the image of Amir Peretz, Avishay Braverman and Shelly Yachimovich. And then there's the Likud, which is returning to its roots: the historic Herut movement of Menachem Begin, a withered party with 10-15 seats, most of whose members will apparently belong to the right-wing, Revisionist branch of the movement. And as for Shinui, it is going through a destructive process of its own; soon it will resemble the defunct Independent Liberals, a small bourgeois party whose members "wear their pants above the navel" - that is, reasonable people, good folks, in the bad sense of the word.

Only who can?Bunches of blue-and-white balloons hung embarrassedly in the corners of the Recital banquet hall on the Ramat Gan-Tel Aviv border. The elections jingle of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, a candidate for Likud chairman, was repeated gratingly in an endless loop, at murderously high volume: "Because only Silvan can win ... Because only Silvan can win ... Because only Silvan can win." A few hundred Likud Central Committee members sat in the hall. The mood was sagging. It's no fun to be a Likudnik now.

It's amazing how things change overnight. Until a moment ago, they were the rulers of this land. They walked around like noblemen. Today, though, they feel like they're in a leper colony: Everyone runs away from them, no one comes to them. In terms of status symbols - security guards, armored cars and all that jazz - they're still in power. But mentally, they're already in the opposition. The smell of defeat hits them anew every morning − in newspaper headlines and polls, and in the celebrity parties and the dividing of the spoils that don't stop for a second on the other side of the street, where the competitors are.

"Who can stop the flow in the direction of Arik Sharon?" the candidate screams from the stage. "Silvan! Silvan!" they respond in the hall. "We are in a deep crisis," said Shalom. "Likud voters are considering voting for Amir Peretz! Who can stop the flow to Amir Peretz?"

The people are quiet, talking among themselves. "I have a home. The Likud. I have no other home," said Shalom, hinting heavily that this may not be the case for his two main competitors, MK Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. "Who should we give this home to? Someone who has caused disintegration? Someone who disintegrates things? Someone who is thinking of disintegrating? Who can assure us that Bibi will remain in the Likud if the Likud disintegrates?" Shalom added. "I asked him for a commitment that he will remain. I also asked Mofaz to commit that he will remain, no matter what happens or what the result is."It will be worthwhile to come back to these words on March 29. Whoever heads the Likud then, assuming that the party will indeed experience the "disintegration" everyone is talking about, will be anointed with tar and feathers and will be expelled from the citadel immediately by the contenders who lost to him in the first round. It's hard to envision Shalom begging Netanyahu to stay under such circumstances, especially considering that Netanyahu, as a leader of the anti-disengagement "rebels," was responsible to a large extent for Sharon's resignation from the Likud, which split the party and brought disaster upon it. Shalom reminded him of this Wednesday when the five candidates for party chairmanship met at the Knesset office of the Likud faction chairman, MK Gideon Sa'ar.

"I don't attack Likudniks," Netanyahu said.

"Really?" asked Shalom. "Do you think that we have forgotten what you said about Sharon?"

The rascal supports FeiglinThe race for Likud chairmanship appears to be a trilateral struggle: Netanyahu, Shalom, Mofaz. Yisrael Katz insists that he too is in the picture. The polls predict he will win between 1 and 3 percent of the vote, but he says the polls don't understand, that people don't know him well enough. Katz is right about one thing: He has an organized camp that he established himself three years ago on behalf of Netanyahu, who was then running in the primaries against Sharon. Netanyahu lost and sank into his work at the Finance Ministry, while Katz took care of the camp. Or, at least, that's what Netanyahu thought. Until one fine day, he discovered that Katz usurped the activists. Today, most are with Katz.

Almost all the prominent central committee members, the "chiefs," as they are known, are associated with Katz and Shalom. The big question now is how much influence a few hundred bosses have on tens of thousands of voters. Only about 50 percent of Likud members are expected to vote in the primaries - that is, between 60,000 and 70,000 people. The winner will be whoever succeeds in bringing a similar amount of voters to what Peretz brings to the polls.

Most Sharon activists support Shalom, with only a few supporting Mofaz. This is natural and understandable. The Sharon camp and the Shalom camp have been walking hand in hand for the last six years. But in the "farm forum," a group of Sharon advisers who met last night in Tel Aviv, most of the members are actually hoping for a Netanyahu victory. Only a few want Shalom to win - and one rascal supports Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Likud's right-wing Jewish Leadership faction. Sharon's advisers consider Netanyahu the most "comfortable" rival for Sharon, despite the fact that in any case, the No. 1 rival is Amir Peretz. They don't see Netanyahu as an obstacle to a future ruling coalition headed by Sharon. In any case, they say, when we start forming the coalition, Netanyahu will already be on his way to a lecture tour in the United States.

There is no point in trying to predict what will happen to the Likud in the December 19 primaries. The polls give Netanyahu a significant lead over his competitors in the first and second rounds. But we have already learned that polls cannot predict the results of primaries. Organization is what will determine the outcome. Shalom is convinced that his infrastructure will win, or at least lead to a second round. Mofaz, his associates say, is using his military experience to recruit support. "He is in charge of his own operations," these sources say. "He doesn't rely on anyone." We've already discussed Katz. And as for Netanyahu, he finds himself in Shimon Peres' shoes. He has a lot of sympathy, but it's not clear to what extent he is ready to get people going. Activists in the field complain that his bureau is so hard to reach it?s as though he were still at the treasury.

The word "disintegration" takes on a new meaning once you examine the numbers for the poll publicized in today's Haaretz. It is basically "vanishing." On the eve of Sharon's withdrawal from the Likud, Katz convened the party secretariat and announced that the Likud would win, even if it were headed by the president of Tunisia. In light of these findings, perhaps that's not such a bad idea.

Time as the enemy"Time," sighed one of the prime minister's advisers this week when he was asked who Sharon's biggest rival is. "Time is the biggest enemy." Four months (minus four days) are left until the elections, which is light years in campaign terms. Meanwhile, everything is coming up roses. The mistakes, the crises, the losses - they are still before us. Starting next week, Sharon's party can only go down. The Likud, which has hit bottom, can only go up. The Labor Party's potential is unclear. Sharon associates haven't ruled out the possibility that Labor will win the most seats and Peretz will be the one to form a government. In such a case, Sharon will retire to his ranch, although he doesn't like the word "ranch." He tends to use the Hebrew word meshek, referring to an agricultural farm. A ranch is nouveau riche, like J.R. Ewing from the "Dallas" television show, while meshek conveys a Spartanism reminiscent of Kfar Malal, the moshav where Sharon was born. If Sharon does retire, Ehud Olmert would take the reins and lead the party forward, into the Peretz government.

Meanwhile, everything Sharon is doing is going well for him. The latest polls show that his party is strengthening itself. His acquisitions do not, for the time being, exceed reasonable bounds. The first 20 spots on his list include, in addition to himself, all the ministers, MKs and new faces: Avi Dichter, Prof. Uriel Reichman and Ronit Tirosh. Now begins the second phase of "Cochav nolad," "A Star is Born" (the Israeli equivalent of the "American Idol" TV show): Sharon advisers are looking for big guns from the Russian sector, plus an Ethiopian and one or two Arabs. Every name is examined in the surveys that Sharon pollster Kalman Gayer conducts nearly every evening. The stars of Sharon's campaign will be Tzipi Livni, Dichter, Meir Sheetrit and Yaakov Edri. And himself, of course.

Sharon will be the moon, and the stars will move around him. No pollster has examined the interesting question of how many seats Sharon would get if he were to establish a list on which he would be No. 1, with 119 garden dwarves or cartoon characters at his side. Then, at least, he would save himself the ego battles that still await him.

"Everyone there thinks that he's the star," Sharon's people complained this week. "Everyone wants to be a minister in the next government." They don?t understand the complaints being voiced in the back, about how Sharon doesn?t ask their opinions about those joining the list. Since when does he consult? One of his associates quotes Winston Churchill, who said that all he wanted was for his will to be fulfilled, after a reasonable discussion.

Barak as an orderlyHas anyone seen or heard Labor MKs Benjamin Ben-Eliezer or Matan Vilnai recently? Amir Peretz is forming a new party, which will not be remotely similar to the one he took from Shimon Peres on the morning of November 10. Peres, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik are with Sharon. Ben-Eliezer and Vilnai are fighting to keep their heads above the stormy waters. Isaac Herzog, Ophir Pines-Paz and Shalom Simhon are poking out here and there. Even they suddenly seem pale and obsolete in light of the waves of new candidates flooding their party.

The Peretz camp is getting organized now in an effort to put the new chairman's favorites on the Knesset list. The internal elections to decide who will appear on that list were intentionally set for January 17, 2006, to give the candidates time to get organized and get to know the field. If the Peretz voter machine succeeds in its task, the Labor faction in the 17th Knesset will include more new faces than old ones.

Ehud Barak met in the Knesset this week with Ilana Cohen from One Nation, who joined Peretz in the Labor Party. "I'm considering becoming an orderly in the hospital," Barak told Cohen, a former nurse. "That way, maybe in another 12 years, I'll manage to get close to Amir."