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Binyamin Netanyahu's resounding defeat on Tuesday night doesn't mean that we won't be seeing an exact replay of this contest in a few years, with another three-way race starring Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Netanyahu.
Netanyahu might have led Likud down to fifth place in the Knesset, but despite the knives being sharpened in the corridors of Metzudat Ze'ev, the party's Tel Aviv headquarters, he is far from saying his last word. If he draws the correct lessons from the series of political miscalculations he has made over the last year, he can still return the Likud if not to power, at least to a higher political status than Shas and Israel Beiteinu, which overtook him at the ballot box.
Netanyahu has three main factors working for him. First, his rivals are just as discredited as he is. Ex-ministers Limor Livnat, Dan Naveh, Yisrael Katz and, especially, Silvan Shalom don't enjoy sufficient support in the party right now to oust Netanyahu and are being accused today of not pulling their weight during the campaign.
Second, after the electoral humiliation, many on the right will begin to see him once again as a martyr who didn't give up on his ideals and was crucified in return by the media and the left-wing elite. His loyalists hope that, from the underdog position, he will be able to redeem himself in the eyes of the settlers and more resolute right-wingers, still angry at him for initially supporting disengagement.
The third factor is Netanyahu himself. He is in the worst situation of his political career, since the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin's murder, when he was treated like Yigal Amir's partner in crime. His steadfast determination enabled him to achieve an unbelievable comeback and win the elections six months later.
He believes he can do it again, and I would bet on his lasting as Likud leader until the next elections.
Peretz is also in a better situation then Labor's mediocre result, 20 seats, suggests. For the first time, the public elected a serious "social bloc" to the Knesset - Labor, Shas and the Gil Pensioners' Party, altogether 40 seats. Only half of these voters put their trust in Peretz, but the fact that a haredi party decided to run its entire campaign on social issues and came in third place, and that almost 200,000 voters, mostly younger ones, voted for a party concerned solely with the rights of the golden-agers proves that Peretz was correct in running on a social agenda.
If he manages to keep the ball rolling on poverty, education, health and pensions, many Shas and Gil voters will transfer to Labor and Peretz will give Olmert a run for his money in the next elections.
And when will those elections be held? Many observers aren't giving the new coalition more than a year or so and then back to the polls. What they've overlooked is that despite receiving considerably less than its high expectations, Kadima enjoys a fractious Knesset in which there is no other party that can threaten its coalition.
Aside from about 20 Arab and Nation Unional-NRP MKs, the other 100 are all potential coalition members, and Olmert has up to a half dozen different combinations of parliamentary majorities. If he falls out with one or two coalition partners, he can always reshuffle the cabinet. Olmert might well end up serving a full term, changing two or three coalitions along the way.
And a final word on Gil. Two days ago, I warned against voting for it in my certainty it would never cross the electoral threshold.
Now that it's in with seven seats, I realize not only how wrong I was, but that the signs were all around and I just refused to believe. On Sunday, I was in an elevator in Tel Aviv, and a couple in their 20s was saying, "We've got no one to vote for beside the pensioners, the whole office is for them," before getting out at the floor of an ad agency.
On Monday, I received three well-written and highly designed e-mails promising that "youngsters are with the pensioners," and that evening, a friend who is a great Sharon admirer told me she wouldn't be voting Kadima as "I'm fed up with Olmert."
She was also going for the old guys.
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