Three and a half weeks until election day, and the parties are poll-watching with a wide range of emotions.
In Kadima, battered this week by right-wing criticism of a confused response to the rise of Hamas and by a wave of allegations of Olmertian impropriety, they are simply willing the days by. Slipping slightly as the immense potential for internal disquiet among its improbable array of candidates becomes harder to hide, but still miles ahead in the surveys, for them March 28 can't come soon enough.
Labor is counting the cost of being led by an unelectable prime ministerial candidate, and hoping that the traditional error of pre-election surveys - habitually overestimating the Left and underestimating the Right - doesn't presage an even poorer showing on the big day than the pollsters are predicting ahead of it.
Uzi Dayan's Tafnit is desperately awaiting the survey that purports to give it a realistic shot of clearing the two percent Knesset threshold, convinced that large numbers of Israelis endorse its policies and like its leader and are being held back only by the concern that a Tafnit vote is a wasted one. Yossi Beilin's Meretz is deeply relieved that it seems to have escaped that threshold battle, which has already destroyed the once-mighty Shinui.
Eli Yishai is hoping that enough working class Sephardi voters will have been sufficiently alienated by Binyamin Netanyahu's financial policies to stick with his Shas and earn it enough Knesset respectability to keep predecessor Aryeh Deri at bay. Those new bedfellows, the National Religious Party and National Union, are anxiously seeking evidence of the benefit of their difficult alliance.
And in Netanyahu's Likud, as the former prime minister told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week, there is frustration that, while it insists it has the appropriate policies, not enough of the Israeli electorate is apparently persuaded.
But in the smoke-filled Jerusalem headquarters of Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu, there is what appears to be a genuine belief that the polls are flat wrong. ("Ban cigarettes?" snorted the party leader when I mildly suggested he might. "Not a chance. Everybody here smokes!")
"I am not interested in the polls," is Lieberman's pro forma response to the question about how well he's going to do on March 28. But he moves swiftly on to "The results of these elections will be very different from the polls because everything is still in flux. Nothing is certain."
The sense his team is getting from "the field" is that when the innumerable undecideds finally make up their minds, his party will be a prime beneficiary. One in five or six Israeli voters, after all, is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. And the man who moved here from Moldova in 1978 thinks he still speaks their language better than any of his rivals.
Of the three "big" parties, the Likud, it seems, is being hampered by a message that many Israelis find unpalatable - that, facing a terror-led Palestinian Authority, Israel needs to stand firm, retain control of all territory it currently holds, and punish terrorism with a disproportionate response. Labor, by contrast, is being doomed by the perceived irrelevance of a leader proclaiming fealty to the failed Oslo process and a partnership with the Palestinians. And Kadima is apparently benefiting from a message that seems contradictory - the declaration that it will not hurry into further unilateral withdrawal but, even with no Palestinian partner on the horizon, will nonetheless move to determine Israel's permanent borders.
Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu actually embraces parts of all three platforms - the Likud-like insistence on a harsher response to terrorism, the Labor-esque claim that there are still Palestinians with whom to cut deals and the Kadima-ist confidence that new, long-term borders can be demarcated. Asked if he considers himself, then, to be a right-winger, a left-winger or something in between, he responds immediately: "A pragmatist."
Netanyahu's former bureau chief speaks in the quiet monotone of a leader exhausted from his campaign efforts. He does raise his energy level, though, to deride the ongoing confusion in his old boss's ranks: "I don't know what the Likud is today: Uzi Landau, Silvan Shalom, rebels, rebel lite and those who supported disengagement. Homogenous it isn't."
And he is even more animated when it comes to Israel's purported "stupidity" over the past four decades, spurning opportunities for agreements 10, 50, even 100 times better than we have today.
You sense more support in the field than the polls are giving you?
The polls are giving Kadima 40 mandates, which means one in three Israelis is going to vote for them. Except it's one in every two Israelis because all the haredim, all the knitted kippot, all the orange camp - none of them will vote for Kadima. Add the Russians [who won't either], and you get to 40 seats Kadima can't win. That leaves one in two of everybody else voting Kadima. I don't see it.
What is Israel Beiteinu's unique appeal?
People who vote Kadima, by and large, are voting for continuity, not taking chances, they say: "God will look after us, we'll get through this day by day." Since the Oslo accords, overall government policy hasn't changed. It hasn't mattered if the Likud was in power with Bibi, with Sharon, or if it was the Labor Party with Peres or Barak, or the short period with Kadima. They've all been continuing with the Oslo process and, although Bibi tried to change a little, with much the same economic and social policies.
And that's absurd. In the army, after every accident, after every operation, you have a meeting to learn the lessons. Yet 13 years after Oslo, we haven't stopped to work out what we've gained, where we've failed, the overall balance.
Now, we've just evicted some good Jews from Gush Katif. What were we promised? Three things. An improved security situation, that it would strengthen the [Palestinian] moderates and that it was the last concession in order to protect Judea and Samaria.
What's happened? The security situation has deteriorated. Kassams used to only fall in Sderot, now they're firing from Dugit into Ashkelon. Has it strengthened the moderates? Apparently they mean that Hamas is more moderate than Islamic Jihad. And further concessions are already openly discussed. Nobody is learning lessons.
As for demographics, the issue is not Gaza or Judea and Samaria. It's within the 1967 borders. When you look at the population by age group, the proportion grows ever worse for us [Jews]. When you check the attitude of the Arab population to the Jewish state and to Zionism, that's changing for the worse, too.
I had been warning that Hamas was going to win big [in the territories]. I warn now also that in the 2008 municipal elections in Israel, Hamas will win control of most of the city councils in Israel's Arab sector.
You don't see a demographic problem between the river and the sea?
Much less of one, because those people are not citizens of the State of Israel. They have no right to vote or to be elected. There is a problem there, but in terms of priority my main concern is within the '67 borders.
Your solution is to redraw our sovereign borders?
Not to move people physically.
No, not uprooting anybody, but changing the route of the fence and where you have problems [doing that] in Jaffa, Ramle, Lod, Acre, you deal with that with a new citizenship law: When someone reaches the age of 16 he gets an ID card and must make a declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel as a Jewish state, Zionist, the blue and white flag, Hatikva, and a readiness to serve in the army or alternative service
And if not?
Then he remains a permanent resident without the right to vote or be elected.
Do you have a map of this redrawn Israel?
We do, but any map we publish would be perceived as an opening position. In general, we would relinquish all those Israeli Arabs living between Jewish population centers and the Palestinian Authority. Places like Umm el-Fahm and Kafr Kassam - today the border runs here (draws a rough sketch). You just move it to here.
Essentially you are handing over to Palestinian control how many of Israel's Arabs?
About 400,000-450,000 people.
And at the same time, in return?
We annex all the settlement blocs. Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, Ariel , Givat Ze'ev, the Jordan Valley and so on.
And the territory that we give over to the Palestinians?
They can do with as they wish.
Aren't you opening a Pandora's box, placing our sovereign borders in debate?
I'm not worried. Ideally, I want the Cyprus model. Until 1974, Turks and Greeks lived together and each was making the other bleed. In '74 they put 100% of the Turks on one side of the island and 100% of the Greeks on the other, with a barbed-wire fence in the middle with mine fields, and there are no more hostile acts, no terror. There's no peace but there's security, stability, prosperity. That's the ideal situation. And I wouldn't hesitate to remake all the borders to achieve that. By the way, the 1947 Partition Plan was based on partition in accordance with geographic population distribution.
But you have to act from a position of strength. An agreement with the Arabs reached after '67 would have been 100 times better than today. In 1973 if we'd gone all the way with the Camp David accords, we would have achieved 50 times as much as is possible today. The Madrid agreements would have been 10 times as good.
We've lost all our deterrent capability. Nobody takes us seriously anymore. When you don't respond to the [October 2000] lynch [of two reservists] in Ramallah, to the bombing of the Dolphinarium [in 2001], when you declare time after time that Lebanon's soil will burn if one shot is fired across the border and then do nothing, your deterrent capability is zero.
Wouldn't relinquishing sovereign territory exacerbate that loss of deterrence?
First you restore the deterrence, then you enter negotiations from a position of strength.
We missed opportunities twice: After 1967, we could have done much more. And in Black September 1970, maybe instead of helping King Hussein, it would have been preferable to help the Palestinians. Then they would have set up a Palestinian state there, and taken all the pressure off of us.
The whole Middle East is going to change in the next decade. The American forces won't be in Iraq forever. One day they'll have to leave. What will happen in Iraq? Chaos. Saudi Arabia is very unstable. As for Egypt and Jordan, I think that Generals Kaplinski and Naveh [with their recent warnings about the regimes there] put it better than I can. So there's instability and a reality that we have to break. There's a Shi'ite bloc that includes Iran, Iraq, Hizbullah. There's a bloc of the Palestinians: Jordan, Judea and Samaria, Israel's Arabs; Israeli Arabs increasingly define themselves as Palestinians and not as Israelis. The cooperation between these two blocs is like a pincer.
How would you "restore deterrence"?
We need to say ahead of time that if Hamas carries out an attack, no site associated with Hamas will remain standing. Every factory, every headquarters, every base, every office of theirs, we just wipe them out. That hasn't been done. You hear that the army fires on access routes for Kassam launch sites. What does that mean? That the IDF is firing into the sand. It's all a show. It's all Hollywood.
Specifically, what would you do today about the Kassams?
Three things: First, close all the border crossings at Sufa, Karni and Erez. In our stupidity, we gave up the Sinai, with its oil, gas and Riviera, and kept Gaza with all its refugee camps and problems. Now we've given up Gush Katif but left them all at our throats. All their produce goes via the crossings and Ashdod port. We supply them with electricity, water and telephone service. So close all the crossings. Tell them that, a month from now, we're stopping the supply of electricity and water. Let Egypt take care of them. All their trade should go via Egypt - via Rafiah - and all the tax collection, too. Disconnect completely.
Second step, as I said: Hamas attacks? Not a single Hamas building is left standing. Same for Jihad.
Third step: Just as Sheikh Yassin wasn't immune, so no one [in Hamas] is immune [from an Israeli response].
Including the elected representatives?
Including the elected representatives.
This redrawing of the borders, you do it unilaterally or by negotiation?
First, you rebuild deterrence and then you do it by involving Egypt, Jordan and the Quartet. Unilaterally? No chance.
And with which Palestinians?
There are enough people there who would sign on to this.
There is an address on the other side, apart from Hamas?
Does all this make you a leftist, a rightist, in-between?
And I think I can be an influence [in and after these elections], and that the public is prepared to listen to what I'm saying. Once it wasn't. In 2001, when I said we should bomb Iran, they said I was crazy. Today there's competition between Kadima and the Likud about who will hit them harder. Today the public is ready to listen.