Electionscape: The Teflon prime minister

Today is 50 days since Amir Peretz's victory in the Labor primaries, which was the unofficial kickoff of the election campaign. Though it's dangerous to draw conclusions when there are still three months minus two days to go before E-Day, some facts are obvious - that is, obvious to everyone except Peretz. The first inescapable truth is that there's nothing new under the Middle Eastern sun. Like in every election since 1988, the crucial vote wasn't in the hands of Israeli citizens, but decided upon in Gaza, Beirut and Teheran. In a week when Kassams in the South and Katyushas in the North dominated the headlines, the pundits' predictions 50 days ago that, this time, the elections would be run on a socioeconomic agenda ring particularly hollow. It's not that the missile attacks had any significant strategic or tactical effect, but the military events automatically wiped issues like poverty and unemployment off the table. Which brings us to the second point. Peretz has nothing to offer, save reheated and recycled ideas. Even his much-vaunted economic plans are exactly the same platform he's been championing for 10 years as Histadrut chairman. His elevation to the leadership, which was greeted as a breath of fresh air for a moribund party, has actually set Labor back years. Despite the impressive number of popular figures who have joined the party in the last few weeks, the polls prove that the public isn't seeing anything new in Labor, just good old trade unionism. In March 2001, a month after he was elected prime minister, Ariel Sharon led the Knesset majority that voted to cancel the direct prime ministerial election. The move was supposed to restore power to the parliamentary parties and abolish the system that had been based on the popularity of a single candidate. Five years later, the same Sharon has effectively restored the direct personal election and emptied party politics of meaning - this time without changing the law. For a large majority of voters, these elections will not be about which party should form the next government, but a referendum on Sharon's leadership. Those in favor will be voting for a party with no clear ideology or manifesto, whose parliamentary list will be decided at the whim of one man. Those against will have to lodge their objections through a vote for one of the two downtrodden and downcast parties, Likud or Labor, both sad remnants of what were once the parties of power. The main conclusion, at this point, is that Sharon has already set the ground rules for these elections. It won't be about the minimum wage. And if the events of the last two weeks are anything to go by, Binyamin Netanyahu and Peretz will have difficulty capitalizing on Sharon's health or terrorist attacks, a tactic that would backfire. Sharon isn't just a Teflon prime minister, he seems to be made of rubber, and whatever's thrown at him just bounces back with a vengeance. No matter how much Peretz and Netanyahu talk about economics and security, it's all about personality and popularity. Only when they realize that they have to start overcoming the widespread public animosity toward both of them, and begin striking a chord with more than their small fan base, will they have any hope of regaining some of the ground now firmly occupied by Sharon.