The malaise infects every aspect of Israeli society.
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
An epidemic has hit Israel and it is liable to create even more hype than bird flu.
It's called election fever and it infects every aspect of society. After Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hinted on Monday that he might have to punish his political rivals by initiating early elections, everything that happens here will have to be seen within the context of a country that will soon be going to the polls.
From now on, whenever any politician wants to accomplish anything - whether it's removing an outpost, talking to a Palestinian or building a factory - he will have the ready excuse that he will do it "after the election."
Politicians talk about "after the election" the same way that people start talking about doing things "after the holidays" already at the beginning of the summer.
The strange thing is that the hype has already begun even though no one knows when the election is going to be. If Sharon visited President Moshe Katsav today - and, as expected, no MK decided to try to build a new coalition - the election would be held on February 7, nine months ahead of the original date of November 7, 2006.
But Sharon's associates say that before initiating the election process, the prime minister wants to pass the budget. Considering that the earliest the budget could pass is the end of December, the election might not be until April.
And if Shimon Peres emerges victorious in the Labor Party leadership race, Sharon and Peres could decide together on a date for the election as late as May. What is truly amazing is that the spotlight in the country is on an election that could be six months away, but no one seems to care about the Labor race on Wednesday.
That race has barely even reached the front pages of the papers, because it is seen as a battle among Peres, Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz and National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer over who will be Labor's candidate to lose the next election for prime minister.
You would think that the party that governed Israel for decades would have had serious debates among its potential prime ministers. But the fighting in this election has taken place mostly in the courtroom, with candidates sparring over who should be allowed to vote.
Barring the rioting in polling stations that Labor secretary-general Eitan Cabel warned of on Tuesday, the race that was supposed to end in June will finally end on Wednesday, sparing the party any further moments of embarrassment.
The election fever that is gripping the country seems to have passed over the Labor Party's 100,474 members. Labor officials said they would be glad if the turnout on Wednesday surpasses the 53 percent who voted in the 2003 race that was won by the long-forgotten Amram Mitzna.
If Laborites can't get excited over electing their leader, there is always hope for the bird flu.