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Prognosticators Turn to the ‘Day After’ a Sharon Win

JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon will be reelected prime minister, the Likud will be the largest party and the right-wing bloc will hold an absolute majority in the next Knesset. This is the collective prognosis of all major public opinion polls in advance of Tuesday’s elections in Israel. At this point, any other result will constitute an enormous upset.

Political predictions and calculations are already focusing on the day after, and on Sharon’s projected latitude in forming a new coalition. Sharon’s first choice would be another national unity government with Labor, but he may have to make do with a narrower right-wing government, at least at the outset. Much will depend on how well, or rather how poorly, Labor actually performs in the polls.

Labor leader Amram Mitzna is fully aware of the writing on the wall, and is now praying for graceful defeat, rather than a humiliating drubbing. If Labor dips below 20 seats in the 120-member Knesset — and especially if it slips behind the centrist Shinui as the Knesset’s second largest party — Mitzna’s head will be on the block. Given his firm opposition to serving under Sharon, Mitzna’s deposal could pave the way for a new broad coalition with Likud, an option privately favored by most of Labor’s leaders.

Mitzna’s attempts to hold the line and arrest his party’s steady decline in the polls are appearing increasingly futile as Election Day approaches. First, Mitzna and Labor were rocked by a poll published January 20 by the daily Ma’ariv which showed that the party would theoretically fare much better at the polls next week if it were led by elder statesman Shimon Peres. The poll showed Peres gaining 29 Knesset seats compared to Mitzna’s 19 and pulling near even with the Likud, making flat-out victory a possibility.

The poll forced Mitzna into a costly side-battle, fending off calls within Labor for Peres to replace him at the last minute. That, in turn, embroiled the hapless Mitzna in an emotional spat with his immediate predecessor, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Mitzna claimed Labor would have fared even worse under Ben-Eliezer, which only fanned the flames of Ben-Eliezer’s simmering resentment over his own deposal as party chief two months ago. Now all the internal tensions and animosities that were supposed to remain under wraps, at least until Tuesday, broke out into the open as an amazed public looked on. Ben-Eliezer and his supporters replied with a pledge to launch a new challenge to Mitzna’s leadership “within an hour” after the polls close Tuesday.

No wonder, then, that Sharon was laying low and keeping almost mum in the last days of the campaign, letting Labor do his dirty work for him. Having weathered a grueling month of political and personal corruption allegations, Sharon’s strategy appeared to be geared to avoiding any last-minute gaffes, aiming for reelection as prime minister almost by default.

Shinui, the surprise hit of the campaign, was also rejoicing at Labor’s apparent hara-kiri, picking up disgruntled Labor voters with scarcely an effort. Shinui, which garnered six Knesset seats in the last elections, already has 15 seats assured, according to polls. If current trends continue, Shinui may well pass the descending Labor on its way up.

If any tension emerges on election night, it will most likely revolve around the formation of the political blocs within the Knesset, with each side aspiring to garner the magical number of 61, enough to block the other side from forming a governing coalition. Most polls currently show the right-wing and religious bloc picking up between 63 and 65 seats, but the convoluted laws governing distribution of Knesset seats could swing things the other way. If, for example, the far-right Herut party falls just short of the 1.5% threshold needed to enter the Knesset, while the anarchic Green Leaf party, which supports legalized marijuana, makes it over the top, no fewer than four Knesset seats could wander from right to left, frustrating Sharon’s wish for a solid political base in the next Knesset. A right-wing government would then cease to be an option, and Sharon would find himself dependent on Shinui, or on Labor.

On the other hand, an analysis of Sharon’s future options must also consider the gathering clouds of war in Iraq. An atmosphere of national emergency on the eve of war in the region would limit Mitzna’s ability to block the formation of a new national unity government, and would increase the odds of his removal as party leader if he tried to do so.

Indeed, notwithstanding the statements and pledges of Mitzna and others, most Israelis are convinced that post-election reality will closely resemble the current situation. In a recent poll in Ma’ariv, more than 50% of the public said that the elections “won’t change a thing.” Most Israelis expect the national unity government to be reconstituted with Sharon at the helm, and many view the elections as a superfluous diversion from the natural course of events.

This fatalistic approach, bordering on apathy, may also help explain why Sharon seems assured of victory, despite the country’s dismal state. Most Israelis feel that it is not they who control their country’s destiny but outside forces, including, mainly, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians. It is them, not Sharon, that the public blames for the lack of security and peace, and for the country’s steadily deteriorating economic state. The public is at a loss to suggest ways of extricating Israel from the morass, so it doesn’t fault its leaders for being equally devoid of solutions.

The projected election results also express the rightward ideological shift of the population during the last two years, following the failed July 2000 Camp David summit and two years of Palestinian terrorist atrocities. Charges of corruption at the top may have dented Sharon’s image at the outset of the election campaign, but most Likud voters eventually returned home, preferring the tainted Sharon to any alternative. The public may support more moderate political positions on peace and separation, as all the polls show, but it nonetheless prefers the tough and hawkish general Sharon to his dovish, mild-mannered rival Mitzna.

Mitzna will find it hard to escape personal responsibility for Labor’s results, assuming they are as dismal as polls suggest. It was an uphill battle from the start, because of the public’s wish to punish Labor for its conciliatory policies toward the Palestinians. Still, Mitzna couldn’t have dreamed of better conditions for an upset. In the end his lackluster leadership and lack of charisma failed to generate enthusiasm among the throngs of undecided voters who were willing to consider an alternative to Likud, but ultimately didn’t see one.

Pre-election polls have failed in the past, and a stunning upset can’t be ruled out absolutely. It could turn out, for example, that many voters, especially Russian immigrants, who told pollsters they were voting Likud will decide to stay home on Election Day out of disgust with the entire political process. Or Arab voters, who are supposedly wavering on whether to vote at all, may turn out in droves. Or harsh winter weather on Election Day may upset all advance calculations of voter behavior.

But barring the unpredictable, the election results are more or less known today, as they were from the outset. And their bottom line, encapsulated in a phrase, is simply this: more of the same.

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