In a series of general elections here over the past decade and a half, arguably the central character was not Israeli at all. Perhaps the most dramatic moment of political theater in our recent history was Yitzhak Rabin's hesitation when that central non-Israeli player, Yasser Arafat, extended his hand on the verdant lawns of the White House on September 13, 1993, to purportedly complete his transition from terrorist to statesman. The moment resonated because Rabin's uncertainty - it required a little touch of encouragement from Clinton, standing behind the pair, to consummate the clasp - emblemized this country's reservations about the partnership with Arafat. Would it bring us peace or pain? The nation's inability to reach a consensus on Arafat lasted right through the 1990s. Just look at those elections, and the radical flip-flops we made in the shadow of our Arafat dilemma: from Shamir (right), to Rabin (left, assassinated by a Jewish extremist against the background of the Oslo process, and briefly succeeded by Peres), to Netanyahu (right), to Barak (left), to Sharon (right... at first). Arafat's death in 2004, and the Sharon resort to unilateralism that preceded it, have changed the central dilemma now facing our electorate. The old choice, between staying put in much or all of the West Bank and Gaza, or negotiating with the Palestinians on the fate of that territory, has been superseded. Gaza is gone and, in the minds of most Israelis, so too is the negotiating option given the rise of Hamas. Now the choice is between staying put and withdrawing unilaterally. Despite the mudslinging and the colossal waste of public funds in often misleading and generally puerile TV and radio commercials, we can more clearly discern today than just a few months ago which of those paths our main political suitors would likely follow. The Likud is no longer a party made dysfunctional by internal conflict over Sharon's volte-face; Labor is no longer dedicated to keeping Sharon in power, and Kadima no longer holds to the frankly illogical position expounded by Sharon: determined to set Israel's borders, with no partner for negotiation, but without acting unilaterally. As The Jerusalem Post's interviews last week with Ehud Olmert and this week with Shaul Mofaz have made unequivocal, a Kadima-dominated government would move toward a major West Bank pullout. In our fractured electorate, however, the three "big" parties are far from the whole story. As throughout our modern history, the leading party will not be able to govern without the support of some of the not-so-minor other players. If a combination of Kadima, Labor and Meretz cleared the 61 hurdle for a Knesset majority, Olmert would be able to fashion a government almost at will, one well able to pursue his agenda with maximal cohesion and minimal dissent. A victorious Olmert could choose whether to bring in Labor or the Likud (the latter highly unlikely so long as Netanyahu heads the party), and/or avail himself of the likes of Shas, United Torah Judaism and Avigdor Lieberman's high-flying Israel Beiteinu (apparent principal beneficiary of votes from the Russian community, the part of the electorate that has served as a crucial swing sector in helping determine several recent elections). All three of these smaller parties have indicated a readiness, in principle, to join either a Kadima-led or a Likud-led government. But the further the Kadima-Labor-Meretz trio falls below 61, the greater the potential for political delay and "bargaining." And a performance by this trio far below the survey expectations would throw all bets off. The further any of the "big" parties - Kadima, Labor and Likud - falls below the pollsters' predictions, meanwhile, the greater the potential for internal dissent, leadership challenges (with no shortage of candidates in each grouping ready to try and oust the chairman) and rupture. Olmert would probably like nothing more than to see the Likud, Labor or both ditch their feisty, prickly, individualistic leaders, especially in favor of more compliant successors. For that matter, Olmert's considerable achievement in gluing Kadima together after Sharon's incapacitation will count for nothing with some of the acting prime minister's more restless party bedfellows if it badly underperforms. *** Israel is an impatient country - impatient about everything from sitting in traffic to peacemaking. We're overworked, rushed off our feet. We have no time. We want results now. Elections are a case in point. So impatient are we to know the outcome of our (not infrequent) general elections that we descend into a veritable orgy of pre-election opinion surveys, whose minute details we fuss over - despite the pollsters' history of aberration and their get-out clause, the wide-margin-of-error defense. But there's a paradoxical side to the survey obsession: The increasing pervasiveness of the polls as the years have passed is surely a contributory factor to the gradually falling voter turnouts on election day. A goodly proportion of potential voters, it can reasonably be assumed, become so persuaded by the survey deluge that the election result is already a done deal as to conclude that they need not actually bother turning out to cast the fateful slip of paper. Other democracies poll heavily, of course, but not all with the relentless cacophony of ours. And crucially, few other democracies feature a comparable multiplicity of parties sparring over so relatively low a number of seats in parliament. That so abundant a range of parties competes for the privilege of representing so divided an electorate renders the whole polling process immensely problematic. A relatively minor miscalculation by the pollsters, or shift in the electoral winds, can have the most drastic consequences. And the potential is ever-present both for miscalculation (almost all surveys consistently underestimated support for the Likud in the last election by as much as a quarter) and last-minute shifts (prompted by a host of factors including, experience shows conclusively, acts of terrorism). In a process that is far from unique to Israel, meanwhile, the very act of polling, and the public's analysis of the polls, come to serve as a significant factor in determining how people vote - as the electorate chooses to ally itself with a likely winner, or turn out en masse to boost a gallant underdog, or eschew a grouping deemed by the surveys unlikely to perform well, or, again, stay home altogether in confidence, apathy or despair at the apparent foregone conclusion envisaged in the surveys. As the Post's political correspondent Gil Hoffman puts it so well, this election campaign, like others before it, has demonstrated that the polls may be utilized as a tool for measuring parties' momentum, if that. Ariel Sharon's third successive victory was, the polls indicated, a done deal. Until he nearly died. Then, the surveys gave Ehud Olmert the smoothest of successions. Until he began to slip. The fact is, of course, that nothing is decided until the results are out on the only survey that matters, at the ballot boxes themselves. And apart from a few thousand diplomats at overseas legations and merchant seamen, that poll is only now about to begin. *** Hamas's triumph has put Israel into a kind of collective depression that the pre-election political fighting has done nothing to lift. Another factor in the underwhelming campaign is plainly the absence of the dominant figure of our recent politics, Sharon. But the relative apathy and the feared low turnout are also apparently a consequence of a deeper public alienation from our legislature and its lawmakers, dismay over perceived political duplicity and personal dishonesty. Dangerously, there's a gloomy feeling repeated in conversation after conversation that our politicians are all in it for themselves. Erroneously, it is asserted that it makes no real difference who runs the country. (Or, more flippantly put, "It doesn't matter who you vote for, we always end up with Shimon Peres.) The breed of politicians selflessly dedicated to the public good may be rare indeed, but our much-maligned media have certainly provided the public with sufficient information to distinguish between the tolerably self-interested and the thoroughly flawed. And the candidates themselves have not lacked opportunities to persuade the voters of their capabilities and interest (or lack thereof) in issues beyond relations with the Palestinians - matters ranging from education to health, social welfare to road safety, religious dialogue to the environment - that also figure as voters make up their minds. Except that you get the strong sense that even among people who recognize and appreciate the right and obligation to go to the polls, many are not voting on policies at all this time, but rather on personalities, and in the negative - choosing the leader and party that least offend, rather than most entice. Our pure proportional electoral system, unfortunately, serves to create the misapprehension among some pols who have managed to find places in the high reaches of their parties' Knesset slates that they sit in parliament almost by divine right. The disconnect from the public they are elected to represent is furthered by the lack of the direct accountability that a constituency system would provide. Neither they, nor we, should lose sight of the fact that they serve at our pleasure. All 120 Knesset seats are ours, not theirs, to fill. On Tuesday.