Olmert's Judgment Day

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Israelis hang pre-election banners in Tel Aviv

Israelis love plastering bumper stickers on their cars. Political slogans, catchy phrases and jokes all act as a gauge of the driverís often cranky mood. So what are Israelis thinking about tomorrowís parliamentary elections for the 120-seat Knesset? Judging from the glaring lack of bumper space Israelis seem to be dedicating to the race, not a whole lot.

Some Israelis say that's because the three main candidates—Kadimaís Ehud Olmert, Likudís Binyamin Netanyahu and Laborís Amir Peretz—are all either uninspiring or distrusted. But the real reason may be that most Israelis consider the results to be a foregone conclusion. The latest polls give acting prime minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party enough votes to clobber its rivals (though not enough for a majority); one weekend survey, conducted by the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, predicts that Kadima will win 36 Knesset seats, Labor 21, and Likud will end up a distant third with 14 seats.

The truth is that no matter who wins, Israelis know their next prime minister will probably dispense some bitter medicine: a pullout of some Jewish settlements inside the Palestinian territories in exchange for permanent borders. Political analysts say Olmert — who inherited both the self-described centrist Kadima party and its main platform of "disengagement" from Ariel Sharon, still in a coma after a massive stroke last January — has tapped into a new pragmatism among Israeli voters. Co-existing with the Palestinians, especially with a government next door now run by Hamas, now seems an impossibility to most of them. A vote for Kadima, says columnist Sima Kadmon of Yedioth Ahronoth, is nothing less than the "victory of the desire of most of the public to rid themselves of the Palestinians... It is the expression of the desire to see a border with a Jewish state on one side and a Palestinian state on the other."

The real loser in the election may well turn out to be Likudís Netanyahu. A gruff ex-Prime Minister nicknamed Bibi, Netanyahu managed to anger most of his right-wing voters after taking office in 1996 by cutting subsidies for the big families of ultra-Orthodox Jews and by giving away part of Hebron to the Palestinians. This time around, Netanyahu tried to stop Kadimaís surge in the polls by scare-mongering about Palestinian terrorism and hurling personal insults against Olmert, but these tactics backfired. At best, Likud can hope to become a junior partner as part of a Kadima-led coalition, though most analysts believe Olmert will rebuff Bibi and choose Labor as his main coalition partner. In the meantime, Israelis may be clearing space on their bumpers for post-election stickers about Olmert, who is so certain of winning that, in a fit of hubris, he dispatched an envoy to London to pick up pointers on how Prime Minister Tony Blair runs his cabinet.