Two primary elections this week, in the Labor and Likud parties, launch the penultimate stage before the general elections in January. It is not clear how much impact Operation Pillar of Defense will have on the final result, but it will most certainly play a central role in both primary votes.
It true that Likud is rife with embarrassing wheeling and dealing and vote contracting, but the recent military operation in Gaza raises two key questions, neither of which can be answered by any scientific poll: Will the Likud ministers' massive television presence during the eight-day conflict give them an advantage over the other candidates? And will the perception of those same ministers as decision makers help them win over Likud voters, many of whom are still disappointed with how the operation ended?
The last question is not an objective one. The blow that the Israel Defense Forces dealt Gaza, which was more devastating than has been presented to the public, and the ability to strike without pitting most of the democratic world against Israel, are important achievements in the war on Palestinian terror. But they won't necessarily serve as incentives to vote for the ministers on the Likud list.
The large Likud party, which has now joined forces with Yisrael Beytenu, is facing an unprecedented test in this primary election. After all, at times such as these, how will the average Likud voter, who wants a balanced Knesset list, react? Who will take the party's ethnic or female representation into account? Who will ensure that Likud preserves its liberal image, without which the party will be hard pressed to recruit votes floating between it and the center-left?
During the course of Sunday's Likud primary vote, the battle will intensify, though most of the efforts will focus on motivating activists to come out and vote. The working assumption within Likud is that the next government will include fewer presently serving ministers and deputy ministers, and if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to broaden his coalition, it will be at the expense even of the highest-ranking members of his own party.
The general forecast, not yet substantiated, is that the Labor party, headed by Shelly Yachimovich, will play a central role in the next coalition. This assumption may be baseless, but the party's Knesset list will ultimately be chosen with that possibility in mind. The results of the Labor primary election will also indicate how successful its chairwoman has been in imposing her authority over the party slated to become the second largest in the Knesset.
Under these circumstances, the most interesting politician to watch may be former Labor leader Amir Peretz. Six years after the embarrassing incident in which he was photographed (as defense minister, during wartime) looking through binoculars with the lens caps on, Peretz has redeemed himself by being an early supporter of the life-saving Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, which recently had an impressive run. He decided to push Iron Dome, and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak followed, against the advice of then IDF Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Peretz has suddenly won an unexpected outburst of popularity. But only when the polls close will we know how much his decision in 2006 will have affected the Labor Knesset list in 2012.
Both primary elections embody their initiators' good intentions in efforts to uphold democracy in the big party blocs. But there are also drawbacks. Veterans of previous primaries know that there are those who take advantage of organizations and financial resources to arrange deals and arrive at selfish results.
How selfish? How distorted? Let me just say this: The more independent Likud voters — not controlled by some wheeler dealer or obligated to some boss — who actually show up to vote, the better the primary's result will be. It is almost as important as voting on Jan. 22.