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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Both Likud and Kadima held massive rallies this week that attracted more than 1,000 activists each, eager to listen to their party's prime ministerial candidate speak.
The positive energy in the crowd at the Jerusalem International Convention Center for the Likud's rally on Tuesday was palpable. But, despite poll numbers indicating a Likud victory, the atmosphere at Kadima's event the night before - held at a wedding hall in the Sderot industrial zone - was no less euphoric.
In their speeches, both Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni stuck to the strategy dictated to them by their political advisers: Netanyahu's speech was motherhood and apple pie, Livni's fire and brimstone.
Both candidates have done what they were supposed to do without any major gaffes. Unluckily for them, however, the election is being held not in a vacuum, but in the Middle East, where reality gets in the way of even the most well-thought-out political strategy.
Livni had intended to run a campaign on civil issues and clean politics. Then came Operation Cast Lead, which cast aside all the issues on which she could have led.
In her speech in Sderot, she prematurely eulogized the war, declaring that the image before her, of a packed wedding hall, constituted the proverbial and long-awaited "victory photo" of a successful operation.
"We are relaxed over here," she boasted. "There won't be a red alert tonight."
The next day, an IDF soldier was killed by a roadside bomb. The day after that, rockets fell not too far from Sderot, and the red alert siren returned.
Sober-minded Kadima MKs admitted at the rally that every rocket that fell before the February 10 election would cost them 10,000 votes. They said they were praying for three things that could turn around the race: Kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit's return home, Netanyahu's saying something very stupid, or an "act of God" - with the third option being the most likely.
THE RECOGNITION that outside interference will determine the outcome of the election was confirmed by strategists for both parties, who admitted to feeling powerless, and perhaps even superfluous, in a race in which the events reported on the nightly news have much more impact than the election ads on the same channel the hour before.
"Reality has dictated the campaign much more than the moves of the parties," said a strategist for Kadima.
And it just so happens that the two big issues of the last several weeks that are part of that reality have helped Netanyahu and hurt Livni: The war in Gaza and US President Barack Obama's inauguration.
Livni tried to overcome the political challenge posed to her by the war in several ways: She made sure that she was very visible and that she was part of every decision that was made. She threatened Hamas. She tried to create a perception of a diplomatic victory. And she reminded people that she pushed for the operation more than anyone.
But there was no chance that she would be given credit for an operation led by a defense minister from a party seeking her voters. And the right-wing wave that rises amid any security situation is difficult to overcome. Being the leader of a centrist party has its advantages, in that voters can be sought on both sides, but it also ensures that both sides will do everything possible to harm you, and that's what happened to Livni with the war.
LIKUD STRATEGISTS said that Livni should not have even tried to present herself as security-minded. Instead, they said, she should have announced that Shaul Mofaz would be her defense minister, and maximized his visibility at the expense of her own.
Livni's attempt to declare a diplomatic victory backfired, because polls consistently showed that a majority of Israelis had wanted the operation to continue. But the diplomatic goal from the outset had been to complete it by the time Obama took office, so the people did not get what they wanted.
In that sense, Obama's inauguration ended up hurting Livni when she was counting on it to aid her. She wanted to be seen as the candidate of change, and to persuade people that electing Netanyahu was a recipe for conflict with the Obama administration.
To that end, Kadima's researchers scanned books and the Internet for anti-Netanyahu quotes from anyone connected to Obama, especially both Clintons and current and former Middle East envoys George Mitchell and Dennis Ross.
But that message didn't end up helping Livni either, because in the wake of the war in Gaza, Israelis were in an especially isolationist, "the whole world is against us" kind of mood. Likud officials said privately that they hoped Kadima would continue to portray Netanyahu as someone who would have a difficult relationship with the Obama administration, because they believe it would help him win more support.
"Kadima's criticism sends the message that Netanyahu will be able to maintain Israel's interests better than she," a Likud official said. "I hope they spend a lot of time on these attacks, because the Israeli public thinks Netanyahu will handle the US much better than Livni."
THE ONLY outside interference that helped Livni and hurt Netanyahu was the premature game of coalition politics that was thrust upon the Likud leader this week. The demonized Shas Party gave Netanyahu a bear hug, while the lionized Israel Beiteinu played hard-to-get after party chairman Avigdor Lieberman was boosted by the anti-Arab sentiment of the war, and the progress of a police investigation against him was deemed overtly political.
But Livni has her own political albatross who is disliked even more than Shas: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The concessions to the Palestinians he is prepared to make, revealed by Yediot Aharonot on Thursday, so play into Netanyahu's hands that it might not be a coincidence that Olmert's strategic adviser, Tal Zilberstein - according to a Channel 10 report on Wednesday - is secretly helping out Netanyahu.
A LIKUD strategist said Livni's main mistakes in the campaign were "pretending to be a security person; pretending to be right-wing; pretending to be an outsider; and most of all, not forming a government when she could have, which would have allowed her to replace Olmert and become prime minister without an election."
The strategist said the key to Netanyahu's victory was to stay positive, "but if they punch, we will punch back."
A Kadima strategist said Netanyahu has not made too many mistakes in his campaign, but that one of them was a quote attributed to him to the effect that he would leave Kadima out of his coalition if he won the race. The strategist said that rejecting Kadima made Netanyahu look extremist.
He also said that the key to Livni's victory lies in her emphasizing that, unlike Netanyahu, she - as the head of a centrist party - could form a government with Likud and Labor, and leave sectarian and extortionist parties out. He said the next 10 days would be devoted to winning over the 30 percent of the electorate he claimed was still undecided.
"This race is not over," he said. "Bibi's momentum has stopped. Barak is falling back down. Most polls show we are only three or four seats apart. If we have a high enough turnout, there will be a surprise on February 10."