With the Israeli economy in the worst shape it's been in decades, terrorist atrocities seemingly a permanent part of the landscape and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party caught in scandal, one might have assumed that the opposition Labor Party would be leading in the polls. Yet barring last-minute surprises in this erratic and moody election, Sharon will be returned to office Tuesday with a comfortable majority.
Sharon's success has been to refashion himself from right-wing ideologue into the embodiment of Israel's new centrist majority -- hard-line on security but flexible on territory.
Sharon has abandoned his decades-long opposition to a Palestinian state and now concedes its inevitability. In so doing, his argument with the Labor Party has become tactical rather than ideological: how to create a Palestinian state without mortally endangering Israel in the process.
Labor's prime ministerial candidate, Amram Mitzna, says he would negotiate with the Palestinian Authority even while terrorist atrocities continued. If negotiations failed, he would unilaterally withdraw from most of the territories.
Mitzna's willingness to accept a Palestinian state formed through suicide bombings rather than negotiations would expose Israel to ongoing terrorist blackmail. Indeed, his willingness to unilaterally withdraw has been cited by the fundamentalist terrorist group Hamas as proof that terrorism is panicking Israelis into contemplating one-sided concessions.
Sharon, by contrast, insists that the prerequisite to negotiations on Palestinian statehood is the defeat of Palestinian terrorism.
According to Sharon, the incentive for terrorism isn't desperation but the opposite: a triumphalist sense that Israel is on the run and can be gradually undermined by terrorist blackmail.
Sharon's argument is supported by timing. Palestinian leaders launched their terrorist war in September 2000, just after Israel offered to create a Palestinian state with part of Jerusalem as its capital.
Though the Israeli left has won the argument over the necessity of Palestinian statehood, the right has won the argument over the bankruptcy of the Oslo peace process, and especially over the folly of trusting Yasser Arafat. Almost all Israelis consider Arafat an irredeemable terrorist who has fostered a culture of hatred -- like the recent decision of the Palestinian Authority to name its soccer teams after suicide bombers.
Mitzna's refusal to rule out Arafat as a negotiating partner has made the Labor leader unelectable.
Sharon not only offers backbone but another essential component Israelis crave in wartime: national unity.
As prime minister, he ceded virtual veto power to his former Labor partners in the unity government over security issues. For long months after assuming office in February 2001, he refrained from far-reaching retaliation against terrorist attacks, waiting for Labor's approval. Only after even Labor's doves accepted the need for a hard line against terrorism did Sharon order the army back into the West Bank cities, ensuring Israeli cohesiveness.
Sharon's implication in a scandal involving an inappropriate $1.5-million loan given to his son by a family friend has undermined his image among Israelis as the last of the stoical founding fathers -- an image even political opponents grudgingly accepted. And the ongoing revelation of scandals within Likud, where candidates allegedly backed by criminal elements won safe seats in the party primaries, has further eroded his stature.
Still, Sharon has benefited from a public backlash against clumsy attempts, from within and without, to undermine his reelection.
The revelation this week that reports of the loan investigation had been leaked to the press by a state prosecutor who wanted to help Mitzna's campaign has increased popular sympathy for Sharon. And Arafat's embrace of Mitzna, including a transparent call for a suspension of terrorist attacks until after the elections to minimize Sharon's hard-line appeal, has only further undermined Labor.
Likud, and perhaps Sharon himself, deserves the public's rebuke for violating the norms of good government. But that reckoning will have to await a less dangerous time.
For now, the overriding priority of Israelis is to elect a leader capable of contending with the terrorist threat and a potential nonconventional attack from Iraq.
If only by default, that leader is Sharon.