ISRAEL: Elections, assorted stuff...
So until the real thing next Tuesday, here are the forecast absolute highs for now: Kadima with as many as 24 seats, Likud 28, Labor 18, Yisrael Beiteinu 18 and Shas 11.
Knock off a few for the forecast lows, but the trend remains: Likud is poised to win, leaving Kadima second and Labor and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) neck and neck for third place.
Meanwhile, a few points:
Israelis vote largely on security and social issues. Other issues are nice but luxury items. Two months ago, it seemed the campaign was finally going to revolve around the "other" things, mostly clean government and different politics, after corruption allegations had paralyzed the prime minister and government.
Caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's handicap was the platform of Foreign Minister and Kadima party chief Tzipi Livni's campaign, whose main trait is her clean no-monkey-business approach. She took this to the limit, refusing to go the extra mile (and the few billion Israeli shekels) to secure the ultra-Orthodox Shas party's inclusion in the new coalition she was trying to form, and gambled on her principled rejection of political and budgetary blackmail proving she wouldn't sell out to become prime minister.
Instead, a date was set for early elections and the rest is becoming history, maybe Livni's aspirations too.
Then came the offensive in the Gaza Strip. Sending millions of campaign money down the drain, the military agenda dominated all. When the suspended campaign resumed, those luxury items went by the wayside and the campaign, now compressed into a short few weeks, remained mostly about defense issues. "Livni found herself in a firing zone without a weapon," remarked commentator Shalom Yerushalmi this week.
So it's back to the basics: fear -- of Arabs, Iran, the economy and, of course, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the Likud leader. Livni, whose campaign has been shooting in every direction, warns in electronic effigy that if people don't vote, "Bibi will come," showing a rather sinister picture of him and calling to mind fierce matrons fear-feeding children with "if you don't eat, a policeman will come."
A far cry from the cool D.J. Livni seen last night at a party in Tel Aviv and the political love object of the Livni Boy. (And here it is, just for fun.)
A month ago, Ehud Barak had publicly acknowledged that he was "running for the opposition," but bolstered by the military operation, he announced that he was back in the race for the top. "Eretz Nehederet," an Israeli political satire, staged a mock debate to make up for the one to which Bibi objects.
"Livni" tricked "Bibi," thrice-married and charmant, into what he thought was a blind date but he quickly came around and slam-dunked the "debate" against Livni, who had nothing to say other than that Bibi would ruin the country. Barak can afford to be a no-show to a fake debate; Bibi, who won the fake debate, is rumored to want him as defense minister for real.
And there's Lieberman, the biggest political winner of the Gaza operation. Tough on Israel's Arab citizens, Lieberman's slogan of "No loyalty, no citizenship" resonates with Israeli veterans besides his natural constituency of Russian immigrants.
His popularity erodes that of Likud, though Bibi is "strong on security, strong on economy," areas in which the immigrants tend to vote tough and conservative. To some, Lieberman's too fierce (lawmaker Ahmed Tibi likens him to the late Austrian ultranationalist Joerg Haider); to others, he's not fierce enough (lawmaker Aryeh Eldad says "he's all talk and no action"). A recent corruption investigation hasn't stopped his upward trend and has perhaps even strengthened it.
Looking past the elections, politicians are mulling over the next coalition and coming up with alibis for why they won't -- but might -- sit in the same future government with him.
To be on the safe side, Labor's young guard chapter made sure Livni remembered to stay away from Lieberman and demonstrated outside her house early one morning, complete with a rooster and signs saying "Wake up Livni, Lieberman's a racist."
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem
Top photo: A campaign billboard shows the three candidates for prime minister, from left, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman
Bottom photos: Young Labor members outside Livni's house give her a wake-up call with roosters and a sign reading "Wake up Livni, Lieberman's a racist." Credit: Labor campaign
P.S. Get news from Iran, Gaza, Israel and the rest of the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates" and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.