Although Israel's general election is still two months away, commentators are ready to crown the winner of Thursday's Likud Party primary as the nation's next leader. According to the Jerusalem Post, a range of pre-election polls give Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at least a 20-point lead over rival Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. Sharon's main concern is overconfidence: Ha'aretz said his supporters "are concerned that their rivals may engage in last-minute machinations to cut into the prime minister's vote total. One possible example is a vote-slowdown, in which Netanyahu backers take so much time in casting their ballots that potential Sharon voters could decide to forgo voting altogether in the face of 'artificially' lengthy queues at polling stations."
The right-wing paper Hatzofeh, which supports Netanyahu, worried that Likud's decision to allow 4,500 people (out of Likud's 300,000 total membership) who are members of more than one party to vote in the leadership race is "an important indicator of the nature of the primaries." The editorial fretted that many people join the party, despite having no intention of voting for Likud, because they enjoy exercising influence. Furthermore, the paper claimed, "a large majority of them do not pay their membership fees out of their own pockets."
Several papers ran "I hate both of them, but if I was forced to vote for one, I'd choose …" pieces. An op-ed in the liberal daily Ha'aretz asked: "Who should I vote for? The fat one or the skinny one? The young one or the old one? The coward or the tough guy?" Yoel Marcus concluded: "The dilemma of voters … is that they know both candidates are failures. Both candidates are right when they say vile things about one another. But the object of the game is position and power, and Sharon has demonstrated that he is a virtuoso in building defensive shields—this time, to block Bibi."
A columnist in Yediot Aharonot could "hardly imagine anything more debasing than having to choose either of the two candidates." Nevertheless if there were no alternative, he'd pick Netanyahu, because he "is driven by simple, direct uncomplicated motives which can be engineered and programmed. … If, God willing, the miracle happens and the landlord in Washington wakes up and decides to save his Jews, Bibi will be the right man in the right place. Another night in the White House, another round of applause in Congress, another prime-time interview, and Mr. Netanyahu will hug whoever, sign whatever, and retreat to wherever he's ordered to." (Hebrew translation courtesy of the Lebanon Daily Star's "Israeli Press Review.")
A Ha'aretz op-ed wondered, "What happened to Netanyahu's magic?" The switch from a split U.S.-style election, where voters exercise one vote to choose a prime minister and another for a political party, to a parliamentary election, where the leader of the winning party becomes prime minister, reduces the value of Netanyahu's personal charisma: "[I]n an era of the parliamentary system, it is precisely Netanyahu's solo communication talents that could harm the high voter percentages that are currently forecast for a Likud led by the non-telegenic Ariel Sharon." Netanyahu is a less attractive candidate when "material issues" such as physical security and borders are fundamental. In something of a parallel piece, a Jerusalem Post writer asked how Sharon, "once the black sheep, the wild card, the raging bulldozer of Israeli public life," came to be seen as the safe candidate. In part, it is that Israelis have been moved by his loving family life, but more important he has governed the nation with a steady hand: "He kept a unity government intact for nearly two years, boosted the IDF's deterrent power by pursuing a vigorous policy of targeted killings against Palestinian terrorists, kept Israel's alliance with the US strong, and avoided any major disruption of our trade ties with the EU." Israelis may still not love Ariel Sharon, "but they sure like him a lot."