By Leslie Susser
JERUSALEM (JTA) - Israeli elections are often too close to call - but not this time.
Voting doesn't begin until the morning of March 28, yet virtually all the pundits are predicting that Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party will win by a landslide, and the political focus already is on the post-election coalition he'll build.
Most analysts expect that Olmert's main coalition partner will be Labor. The Likud Party seemed to rule itself out by campaigning vigorously against the cornerstone of Olmert's foreign policy - a second unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.
As for the smaller parties, the main contenders for coalition spots are Avigdor Lieberman's right-wing Russian immigrant party, Yisrael Beiteinu; the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties; and possibly also the dovish Meretz.
If the numbers in the latest polls hold up, Olmert will be able to build a stable four- to five-party coalition, commanding 70-80 seats in the 120-member Knesset and ostensibly strong enough to carry out his far-reaching political plans.
Indeed, several pundits maintain that Olmert will have a much sounder base for sweeping political moves than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ever did.
Kadima has displayed impressive strength throughout the campaign. For 10 successive weeks, opinion polls have showed it running close to 40 Knesset seats, and nothing has seemed to dent its progress, not Sharon's illness - he has been comatose since a Jan. 4 stroke - or personal attacks on Olmert.
Olmert quickly countered a slight recent wobble by clarifying his West Bank withdrawal lines and the logic behind the withdrawal plan.
But it was the Israel Defense Forces operation last week, capturing wanted men the Palestinians had intended to set free from a Jericho jail, that finally cemented Olmert's leadership. The army's resolution and control in breaking into the jail, in which the assassins of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi were being held, reflected on Olmert. After being attacked by the Likud as being soft on security, Olmert came across as courageous and coolheaded enough to be entrusted with the nation's defense policy.
After the Jericho operation, Likud leaders acknowledged that their campaign against Olmert had fallen flat, and Labor leaders conceded that their dreams of a last-gasp turnaround in the polls were over.
Yediot Achronot political analyst Nahum Barnea summed up the prevailing mood when he argued that all that remained for middle-of-the-road voters was to determine the balance between Kadima and Labor at the heart of the next coalition.
"People who want Olmert's government to be more socially sensitive and more dovish can vote Labor; those who are worried about going too far on both counts can vote Kadima," he wrote.
Labor Party leader Amir Peretz has started spelling out his conditions for joining an Olmert-led coalition. Foreign policy will not be a problem, he says, but the socioeconomic agenda could be a deal-breaker.
"The coalition will stand or fall on socioeconomic issues," Peretz declared in weekend interviews with Israeli newspapers. His fundamental demands are raising the monthly minimum wage from $750 to $1,000, providing pensions for all, enforcing legislation to prevent manpower companies from exploiting non-unionized workers, and enlarging the basket of subsidized medicines.
If this works out, there is still another potential hitch - the question of ministries. Kadima will want to retain the defense, foreign affairs and finance portfolios; Labor will want at least one of the top posts.
A compromise here will be essential. One possibility would be for Olmert to create a special ministry for Peretz - say Trade and Industry, with additional responsibility for job creation - as well as chairmanship of the Ministerial Committee on Socioeconomic Affairs.
The next step in Olmert's coalition building is likely to be the co-option of a right-wing party to act as a counterweight to Labor and a buffer against anticipated right-wing criticism of a Kadima-led government. The ideal candidate is Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.
Though extremely hawkish, Lieberman has bought into the idea of separation from the Palestinians as the only way to preserve Israel’s Jewish character. Indeed, he is prepared to take the idea even further, proposing that the borderlines be redrawn to place some Israeli Arab villages on the Palestinian side.
Lieberman will insist on the Interior Ministry for himself and an ironfisted approach to law and order.
Partly to attract right-wing votes and partly to make it easier for right-wing parties to join his coalition, Olmert declared last week that his government would retain the large West Bank settlement of Ariel - though that means carving out an enclave in Palestinian territory - and that he would build up the area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, a large neighboring settlement, though that’s certain to encounter strong international opposition.
To increase the size of his coalition, Olmert also will negotiate with United Torah Judaism and Shas. The main payoff in both cases will be restoration of funding to fervently Orthodox education and large families.
To make sure he has a majority even if the right-wingers and Orthodox bolt over a West Bank withdrawal, Olmert could bring in the dovish Meretz. Meretz leader Yossi Beilin and Lieberman recently have formed a friendship, despite the political chasm between them. Pundits see this as partly designed to signal that they could serve together in the same government.
More likely though, Olmert will go for Lieberman and the fervently Orthodox first - and only if they bolt will he approach Meretz.
What could torpedo this idyllic scenario for Olmert and Kadima? Only if the right wing garners 60 or more of the 120 Knesset seats, setting up a blocking group to prevent Olmert from forming a government.
So far, according to polls, the right-wingers have only 50 seats. Gaining 10 more seats means winning over another 350,000 people, a tall order for one week.
If Labor were to join a right-wing blocking group, however, it could form a government, with Peretz getting the premiership in exchange for his support — although he emphatically denies this could happen.
Indeed, Olmert seems certain of victory. He already has appointed Yoram Turbowicz, a high-ranking Treasury official slated to be his White House-style chief of staff, as his main coalition negotiator. Now all that remains is for Kadima to bring out the vote on the election day.