On my way to the ADL office in Jerusalem each morning I pass Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital where on the ground floor Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lays unconscious and almost forgotten in the two months since his massive cerebral hemorrhage.The past month the media only rarely reported on his state and it appeared he was all but forgotten. But then Wednesday night, March 8, the long-anticipated and often lampooned televised election campaign began. Sharon's new Kadima party splashed his image at every chance as a measure to evoke a continuity with the man many Israelis had complex feelings about and then, ultimately, felt despair when he left the scene so suddenly on January 4.
The country is caught up in the midst of a national election that has been one of the calmest and ultimately low keyed I have ever witnessed here. The results are already known in everyone's mind. Kadima will win. The battles are for the crumbs, the fringes and the all-time high number of floating voters.
Three weeks before the election the newspapers are already reporting what Ehud Olmert is planning to do when he is officially crowned prime minister. What makes this election so different than all previous is the total shake up that Sharon caused when he formed his new party. Israelis have traditionally seen ourselves as a member of a camp; either "left" or "right." Sometimes we fluctuate between the two and historically a good number opt for a fleeting centrist party (Dash, Tzomet, Third Way, Center Party, Shinui) that usually evaporates after two elections or so.
But this time over 50 percent of Israelis are likely to vote for a different party than we did last time. One out of every four voters still hasn't decided for whom to vote. So with about five million eligible voters, over a million still haven't made up their minds.
Another change this time is the rise in the election's "threshold" from 1.5 to 2 percent with the minimum number of seats a party needs to win going from 2 to 3. This has caused a number of coalitions between smaller parties (Arab, religious and right wing) who fear they won't be able to garner the approximately 100,000 votes needed to get in.
Still there are a few fringe parties that continue to show up. There is always a far-right extremist running and this time it is Meir Kahane's sidekick Baruch Marzel, head of the Jewish National Front Party who vows to get rid of the Palestinians "with sensitivity and determination," words used to describe the evacuation of the Jewish residents from the Gaza Strip. Another of the 31 parties running is the Male Party that promises to "wipe out feminism once and for all and … reveal who really assassinated Yitzhak Rabin."It appears that the Green Leaf Party which expanded its election platform beyond just legalizing marijuana to pushing for gay rights and the environment is on the verge of crossing the election threshold for the first time.
With less than three weeks before the ballot, the television election ad campaign began. The ads are similar to the expensive advertisements in the American Superbowl, much anticipated and greatly analyzed afterwards. The election ads cost the public millions of shekels, but they are really an anachronism of the days when there was just one TV station. Now, the various stations each set aside one hour of prime time for the commercials which follow each other one after another. The first night recorded about half a million viewers but this was expected to drop significantly. The ads were a mixture of shmaltz, fear mongering and praise.
Everyone is fighting for the center. Imagine two huge arrows (Labor and Likud) headed together and where they meet a third arrow (Kadima) shoots upward. Polls indicate that Kadima will win about 40 seats, more than double the size of the next largest party.
The new head of the Labor Party, Amir Peretz, has failed to ignite much enthusiasm, following the pattern set by the last Labor candidate, Haifa mayor Amiram Mitzna.Labor has 19 seats now and is expected to stay about the same size. In a way, Peretz, a long-time labor union leader, can already record a victory since his social agenda platform has made the economy and war on poverty a major issue in this election, perhaps even more than security. And that is a first.
The Likud under Sharon won 40 seats last time. Now, under Binyamin Netanyahu the polls are showing them at less than 20.
The dark horse of this election is said to be Israel Beteinu led by former minister and Netanyahu sidekick Avigdor Lieberman. They are hoping for 10 seats and are scoring heavily with the secular Russian voters. Their ads are half in Russian "Netanyahu? Nyet. Olmert? Nyet. Lieberman? Da!"
A popular theme in this election is the war on corruption with Kadima and Likud the biggest culprits. It's not clear, however, if this will have a major impact on voters.
But the bottom line is, of course, the Arab – Israeli conflict and the peace process. The landslide victory of the Hamas in the Palestinian Authority elections in January along with the continued Kassam rocket attacks tends to swing voters to the right. This could increase more if Palestinian terrorists succeed in carrying out attacks before the election in replay of the elections a decade ago that brought Netanyahu to power and ousted Shimon Peres.
If there is an underlying theme in this year's election it is that every party, with the exception of the Arab parties, is headed into it believing they will partner with Kadima and not sit in the opposition. This has kept the mudslinging relatively light.
And they are right. Unless something very dramatic happens Ehud Olmert will assemble the next coalition government and it could have a variety of faces. Kadima could remain centrist with an alliance with Labor and Likud. But we could just as easily see a right-wing coalition as we can a coalition of the left and secular parties. There is also the possibility of signing on only the religious parties if the coalition barter reaches an impasse.
Prospects for the peace process are not as dim as one would expect since Kadima's platform is based on Sharon's legacy that there is no Palestinian partner, particularly now after Hamas was elected. This fits well with the unilateral policies of disengagement with the ultimate goal of defining once and for all the borders of the country.
With all the undecided voters and broken voting habits notwithstanding, it's unlikely we will wake up on March 29 to any major surprises. And I don't know if it is a good sign or an bad omen, but at that day we expect a solar eclipse here in the Holy Land.
*By Arieh O'Sullivan, Director of Communications at ADL's Israel office in Jerusalem.