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Just two days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's dramatic departure from the Likud, it became clearer what he hoped those elections would focus on: the capture of the political center for the next round of territorial disengagements and the reversal of Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's draconian anti-welfare economic policy of the past three years.
Seen through such a prism the elections, now set for March 28, would see three-and-a-half (including Shinui) major parties contending for a commanding chunk of the electorate.
The truth is that that sort of calculation overlooks the major participants, President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who are sitting in Washington pulling on major strings.
Frantic moves for mergers of small parties in the Left, Right and Arab blocs are already afoot due to the new amendment to the Knesset Law which would raise the minimum cutoff for any party to a full 2 percent (three seats in the Knesset). This would mean that any party getting less than 2 percent of the vote would be disqualified, and those votes wasted. In 1992 such a splintering of the Right allowed Yitzhak Rabin to form his Labor-led coalition.
In real democracies all electoral campaigns are marked by some degree of speaking in code, which only the faithful are supposed to understand and the waverers will blithely ignore. Such subtexts are nowhere more ubiquitous than in Israel; hence the claim of Sharon's opponents in the Likud that in actually implementing disengagement he duped his own party, since unilateral withdrawal had been the major plank in the Labor Party's platform under its then leader, Amram Mitzna.
This charge was countered by Sharon and his supporters, who claimed that throughout the previous Knesset campaign Sharon had spoken openly of his readiness for "painful concessions." But that is exactly what political code is all about: The cognoscenti can easily interpret the adjective "painful," while the faithful but unsuspecting masses should not be unduly upset.
In the outgoing Knesset Sharon's ally, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, served as the point man for the frequent release of trial balloons on disengagement - from which Sharon could dissociate himself, if need arose.
IN THE coming elections the major contenders, including the rump Likud - which will choose its leader only on December 19 - and Sharon's new Kadima Party will in all likelihood continue this tradition of speaking in code. It is quite clear that Sharon is expected to continue with a policy of further disengagement, this time from several score "illegal outposts" (as opposed to more permanent "settlements" scattered throughout the territories during the past 25 years under Sharon, the ultimate unstoppable settlement bulldozer.)
On the other hand, nothing has been done, to date, to implement the scathing recommendations presented to Sharon by attorney Talia Sasson over half a year ago for the dismantling of many outposts.
These past and future disengagements were never the "unilateral" ones they were supposed to be. True, there was no formal agreement with the Palestinian Authority for a quid pro quo, but there definitely was a bilateral understanding with the Bush administration.
That understanding will continue to be Sharon's main card in his appeal for the votes of the center. But he will again be constrained to broadcast that message in code, despite consistent findings in the public opinion polls that that policy enjoys the support of a clear electoral majority.
Relatively intelligent victims of conmen are supposed to be immune to falling for the same gimmick twice. The three-and-a-half month election campaign, during which Sharon will be fighting for his political life, is the time he must make greater demands on Washington. Most of the center that Sharon and the others are wooing will want more tangible evidence from the US than the usual code-speak.
This is the time for Sharon to put Washington's true intentions to the test. He will need some "painful spelling out" by Washington on major issues that have been left vague.
Expecting the Palestinian Authority to disarm Hamas and other terrorist groups in the territories is apparently not in the cards. Given the Palestinians' reneging on their own "painful" concession, Sharon should use the time to forge a new agreement with Washington on a fine-tuning of US policy on other issues in contention. The most urgent and realistic one is the final route of the security fence in Judea and Samaria, and around Jerusalem.
US pressure opposing Israel's original security-oriented route is what has kept the urgently needed anti-terrorist fence from being completed. Sharon's urgent electoral needs must now be reemphasized to overcome American opposition to that original route.
Israel cannot be expected to acquiesce in the continued presence of heavily-armed terrorist forces in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon while being compelled to build a less than optimal defensive fence against them.