Olmert's Got a Month Left

Although it seems more than likely that Kadima will form the next government, its assured domination seems to be coming to an end.

In September 1970, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Daniel Bloch, editor of the now defunct Davar newspaper, hosted a radio show on which he asked astrologers for their New Year's predictions. Israeli psychic Uri Geller, who also dabbled in astrology at the time, wrinkled his brow and said: King Hussein will disappear from the stage but we won't be seeing the end of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser anytime soon. Within months, Nasser was dead of cardiac arrest. King Hussein ruled Jordan for another 30 years.

It's the same today, one month to go before elections for the 17th Knesset. No astrologer can predict for sure how the vote will turn out. While most of the surveys envision a landslide victory for Kadima, in theory, at least, such a victory is not yet in its back pocket. As a political party that came from nowhere and rested on the shoulders of one man, who now lies comatose, it might also go nowhere.

Too many of the circumstances that led to the establishment of Kadima were a matter of chance. If not for the Likud rebels who made Sharon's life miserable, if not for the putsch attempts, if not for the party's veto of the ministerial appointments of Ze'ev Boim and Roni Bar-On, Kadima might never have come into existence. And that's not all. If Netanyahu, who ended up voting for the disengagement anyway, had not quit the government, he might have been the one to take over after Sharon suffered a stroke - not Olmert.

Kadima electrified the public because Sharon's charm and determination gave citizens a sense that a true leader had been born - someone capable of making an agreement with the Palestinians, someone endowed with the political courage to shelve the dream of a Greater Israel. Sharon proved he had the emotional stamina needed to carry out "painful concessions," as he called them. That Gaza and the settlements were evacuated in six days without bloodshed created an overnight transformation in the world's attitude toward Israel. Finally a leader had been found who cut the blah blah. One baby step in Gaza, one potential giant step toward peace in the Middle East.

Sharon's stroke and deep coma have been a terrible blow to Kadima. In the same way that France would never have pulled out of Algeria without the gritty resolve of Charles de Gaulle, Kadima is half-baked and headless without Sharon.

Kadima projected power. Fueled by Sharon's character and the fervent desire of the majority of Israelis, it was on its way to becoming a great center-right party all set to turn the political scales in this country. That Kadima reached its highest point in the surveys - chalking up 44 Knesset seats - as Sharon lay unconscious, was no coincidence. Now that the terminal nature of his illness has begun to sink in, however, the figure has dipped to 39.

Ehud Olmert's replacement of Sharon in the new party was a stroke of luck. As an experienced and able politician, he has slid cautiously into Sharon's shoes. Every step he has taken is clearly based on research into what Sharon would have done in such and such a case. But Sharon he is not. In consequence, the percentage of undecided voters and floating votes has risen. The Russian electorate is starting to veer toward the National Union, and some ex-Likudniks and Laborites - only a trickle at the moment - are contemplating going home.

Most Israelis, sick and tired of the current crop of politicians, are still stuck on Kadima. The idea that Kadima is a path, not a party, and will win no matter who heads it, continues to reign supreme. But Olmert's attitude toward Abu Mazen, his response to the rise of Hamas, and especially the glimpses, a la "This is Your Life," of his antics in the corruption, hedonism and arrogance department, have raised some doubts and brought Olmert to the point where he has some explaining to do.

Although it seems more than likely that Kadima will form the next government, people may start asking why Olmert is such a prize. His attempt to dodge a television debate with Netanyahu and Peretz is thus a serious mistake. It shows he is afraid of exposure.

Olmert may be Sharon's successor, but he is not Sharon, broad-shouldered and radiating confidence in his ability to keep his promises. Olmert's good life as an unchallenged heir is coming to an end. He has a month left to convince the voter that he is both an honest man and a person who is capable of leading the country forward with Kadima.