(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When 2006 began, Ariel Sharon was still prime minister, Shinui existed, no one thought the Gil Pensioners Party had a chance of making it into the Knesset and President Moshe Katsav was viewed as dull and boring.
The outgoing year had its share of political surprises. A year that started off with the conventional wisdom that the geriatric duo of Sharon and Shimon Peres would continue leading the country for the foreseeable future ended with complaints of a dearth of leadership.
Israel has a prime minister who, according to the Dahaf Institute, 78 percent of the people believe is not doing a good job, an opposition leader who led his party from 40 seats to 12, a defense minister running sixth in a five-man Labor leadership contest, behind "none of the above," and a president who might end the next year behind bars.
But the past year proved that in Israeli politics, anything can happen. No one would have predicted a year ago that the faces to watch in Israeli politics in 2006 would include the likes of Rafi Eitan, Ron Leventhal and Arkadi Gaydamak.
So looking ahead to 2007, picking the politicians to watch out for is risky business. But the prognosticators at The Jerusalem Post selected the following group of 10 (listed in alphabetical order) who will likely make a significant impact on the headlines in the coming year.
Ariel Attias: The communications minister from Shas had ironically been one of Israel's quietest politicians in the past year, refusing to give interviews and remaining as far from the spotlight as possible.
But that all changed a month ago when his mysterious image earned him a front-page interview in Ma'ariv's weekend magazine.
In the interview, Attias defended the lack of a television or computer in his home by saying that the defense minister did not have a missile in his living room. The interview was published when Shas chairman Eli Yishai was in India, and he reportedly got sick when he saw the exposure given to his young potential rival.
Since then, Attias held a brit (circumcision) for his son David that attracted so many MKs that a Knesset session was delayed due to the lack of attendance in the plenum. If Atias plays his cards right, the man who said in the interview that he cried when he decided to enter politics may have a bright political future ahead of him.
Ami Ayalon: When the Post asked the front-running candidate for the Labor Party leadership on October 12 whether winning the contest would automatically guarantee him the Defense portfolio, he replied: "They're not giving it to me. I'm taking it."
Ayalon's security credentials as a former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the navy attract Labor members looking for the antidote to Defense Minister Amir Peretz's leadership of the party. But the more Laborites see firsthand the intensity of his personality and hear his dovish views, the faster his star could fall.
If that happens before the May 28 primary, Ayalon's ascension to political power could be delayed and he could miss his opportunity.
But if he wins the primary, he will have to face the challenge of uniting a party that has crowned and then rejected four leaders in the past five years.
Ehud Barak: The former prime minister was photographed this week doing yoga at a Hindu ashram in India. Perhaps Barak needed the peace of mind and solace he received from the experience to handle the battle for his political career that lies ahead.
Barak's first political comeback, in 2005, ended in failure when he backed out of the Labor leadership race, endorsed losing candidate Shimon Peres and then briefly flirted with Uzi Dayan about running at the helm of Dayan's nascent Tafnit party.
If, as expected, he announces next week that he is running again, he cannot afford to lose. This would be his last opportunity to prove that he is a leader who should be taken seriously and who could return Labor to power. If not, he will have plenty of time to visit more ashrams in India.
Menahem Ben-Sasson: The head of the Knesset Law Committee is in charge of the massive project of changing the electoral system. A Hebrew University professor, Ben-Sasson was one of Kadima's top recruits and is one of its four religious MKs.
Changing the electoral system was one of Kadima's banners in the election, and the issue is one of the keys to the party's continued existence. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes to use the issue to prove that the party kept its promise of changing Israel's history.
The issue is as controversial as it is technical and it involves reaching a consensus among MKs with a myriad of backgrounds and views.
The difficulty of Ben-Sasson's task is underscored by the fact that no one even remembers that his predecessor at the helm of the committee, Likud MK Michael Eitan, wrote a proposal for a new constitution. But if he succeeds in reforming Israeli politics, Ben-Sasson will be remembered as a big success.
Dalia Itzik: The Knesset's first female speaker made a smart political move when she left the Labor Party for Kadima and sought the speaker's post instead of a junior portfolio. Itzik could easily become Israel's first female president in the likely event that Katsav gets indicted on sexual assault charges.
In such a scenario, she would become acting president until the next presidential election is held as planned in July. Kadima still has not selected its presidential candidate, and Olmert could decide that a female would be a fitting successor to Katsav following the damage he caused the presidency.
Moving Itzik to Beit Hanassi would allow Olmert to reward his longtime ally Ze'ev Boim by making him Knesset speaker, which would free up the immigrant absorption portfolio for MK Marina Solodkin and help the prime minister pacify Russian immigrants who are angry at him. Itzik could learn from fellow Jerusalemites Olmert and Uri Lupoliansky that nothing in the capital is as permanent as something temporary.
Micha Lindenstrauss: The state comptroller is listed here among politicians because he has become Olmert's most formidable political foe. At a time when the opposition in the Knesset is so divided, the only way to bring down Olmert, despite his unpopularity, is if one of Lindenstrauss's eight investigations of the prime minister bears fruit.
Lindenstrauss is set to reveal the results of the investigations in a high-profile press conference in mid-January. But he has been handicapped by the investigation of his own chief investigator, Ya'acov Borovsky, who suspended himself this week and blamed Olmert for trying to bring him down.
Another problem for Lindenstrauss is that he is said not to be on speaking terms with Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, who will ultimately decide whether to open an investigation against Olmert that would have teeth. If Lindenstrauss ends Olmert's tenure prematurely, the retired judge with a left-wing background will be idolized by the Right.
Tzipi Livni: The foreign minister and vice prime minister has become increasingly independent of Olmert, and her diplomatic plans and ideas have pushed him leftward the same way that former prime minister Ariel Sharon was pushed in the same direction by his own vice prime minister, Olmert.
Livni's star fell during the war in Lebanon when she did not give any interviews to the foreign press, but her diplomatic solution ultimately ended the war and improved her reputation in the international community. She has an image as the ultimate professional, but it is canceled out by her lack of charisma. While Sharon was known for his laugh, Livni is known for her frown.
The satire show Eretz Nehederet portrayed Livni as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's yes-woman, which perhaps sent her a message that she needs to adopt an independent agenda to become a serious candidate to replace Olmert and become Israel's second female prime minister.
Yoram Marciano: Labor's faction chairman has become Peretz's last-remaining political ally in the party and his most vocal defender in the press. Peretz made the mistake of not appointing a political spokesman for an entire year, leaving Marciano to advance his own agenda in the name of "a source close to Peretz."
Peretz's advisers privately lament that Marciano has caused him a lot of damage. The Labor leader made a point of absenting himself from the faction meeting at which Marciano gave Olmert an ultimatum that the party would oppose the budget if he did not appoint a social affairs minister by January 1.
That date will come and go, but Olmert does not intend to appoint a minister until after former justice minister Haim Ramon's fate is decided in court two weeks later. But if Olmert decides to give the portfolio to Labor, Peretz could decide to reward the MK most loyal to him, who happens to be the representative of poor neighborhoods in the Labor faction.
Reuven Rivlin: The leading candidate for the presidency is hoping to avenge the loss of his father, Yoel Rivlin, who ran unsuccessfully for the post against Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
But Rivlin has been Olmert's nemesis for decades, and the prime minister will do everything possible to try to prevent a foe from obtaining the presidency and potentially using the high-profile position against him. A Rivlin victory would embarrass Olmert and it could be remembered as the first nail in the prime minister's political coffin.
Winning the post from a Likud faction with only 12 MKs would be a formidable achievement and would testify to the good relations Rivlin built up with MKs from all factions during his tenure as Knesset speaker and since then. One MK said a Rivlin victory would prove that sometimes "nice guys finish first" and that not every decision must be political.
Estherina Tartman: The Israel Beiteinu faction chair has become the most vocal spokesperson for her party leader, Avigdor Lieberman, and has provided the Knesset with arguably it most prolific new female MK since Meretz's Zehava Gal-On.
After the departure of former MKs Gila Finkelstein and Lea Nass, Tartman is the Knesset's only religious female MK. In the absence of cancer-stricken MK Yuri Shtern, Tartman has become Israel Beiteinu's number two personality.
A party source said that if, as expected, Israel Beiteinu receives two additional portfolios in January, Tartman could be in line for the top job, leapfrogging over former deputy Shin Bet head Yisrael Hasson, who is third on the party list after Lieberman and Shtern.
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