The smart money says Israelis won't have to wait until next January's general election to know who their next prime minister will be: Nearly all the pundits agree it will be the winner of the Nov. 28 Likud Party leadership primary between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.
The reasoning is that the Likud is so far ahead of Labor -- and the right wing-religious bloc's lead over the center-left is so great -- that it would take a major political upheaval for anyone but the Likud leader to form the next government.
Whoever wins the Likud primary faces a Labor Party led by Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna. With close to 60 percent of Labor's 110,000 party members voting, results published Wednesday gave Mitzna 54 percent of the vote. That is far more than the 40 percent necessary to prevent a runoff with either current party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer or legislator Haim Ramon. Ben-Eliezer won 37 percent of the vote and Ramon just 7 percent, the results showed.
Pundits believe the Likud's leader in the January elections will be Sharon, the incumbent prime minister, who leads Netanyahu by almost 20 percent in the latest polls.
But Netanyahu is not giving up: He hopes to win by appealing to the innately hawkish sentiments of Likud voters and by slamming the Sharon government's economic record.
His new position as Sharon's foreign minister has not stopped Netanyahu from criticizing the government. But pundits say the old magic is gone, pointing to the vociferous support Sharon enjoyed earlier this month at the Likud convention, compared to the ripples of polite applause for Netanyahu.
"Likud members were always smart, and if the nation wants Sharon, they won't give them Netanyahu instead," gloated key Sharon supporter Yitzhak Regev.
Still, in 1996 Netanyahu closed a 20 percent lead held by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Labor after Palestinian terrorists blew up buses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Netanyahu's hawkish responses then turned the tables. Similarly, last Friday night's ambush of Israeli soldiers and paramilitary personnel in Hebron provided Netanyahu with political ammunition: a chance to embarrass Sharon by making the kind of right-wing statements that the prime minister cannot echo for fear of antagonizing Washington and jeopardizing an Israeli request for $10 billion in American loan guarantees.
Israel should respond to the attack by expelling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat now, Netanyahu declared. In fact, he said, that's what he would do if he were prime minister.
Moreover, Netanyahu said, the Hebron agreement that he himself signed with Arafat is no longer operative because Arafat rendered it null and void by supporting terror. According to Netanyahu, the same is true of the Oslo accords as a whole.
Sharon's response has been curtly dismissive: Security, he says, isn't gained by slogans. Where Netanyahu is aiming at the Likud's right wing, Sharon is already looking to the political center, where the general election in January will be decided.
Therefore, when Netanyahu rails that Sharon will allow the creation of a Palestinian state, Sharon counters that a Palestinian state already exists in all but name. When Netanyahu talks about restructuring Israel's economic policies and cutting income tax to a 35 percent maximum, Sharon unabashedly echoes the Labor line that the real solution to Israel's economic woes is a peace deal with the Palestinians, which Sharon says he will achieve.
Another Netanyahu ploy is to harp on Sharon's age by repeatedly referring to the coming four-year term, at the end of which Sharon will be 78.
Sharon emphasizes the experience and judgment that come with age, implying that the younger Netanyahu is relatively inexperienced, and irresponsible to boot.
There was little in Sharon's earlier career to suggest that as prime minister he would become the consensual, middle-of-the road elder statesmen. He first came to prominence as the daring, unbridled commander of the Unit 101 commando force, set up in the early 1950s to conduct reprisal raids against Arab terrorists who infiltrated from Egypt and Jordan.
Always unorthodox, Sharon the soldier invariably seemed to overstep his orders, most notoriously when his men blew up about 40 buildings in an anti-terror reprisal raid on the Jordanian village of Qibya, leaving 69 civilians buried in the rubble.
In the early 1970s, as head of the Israel Defense Force's Southern Command, the uncompromising Sharon rooted out terrorism in the Gaza Strip by bulldozing the alleyways terrorists used to ambush or escape Israeli soldiers.
That same determination saw Sharon cross the Suez Canal into Egypt -- against the advice of many of his colleagues -- to turn the tide of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As the general with the bandaged head leading his forces across the canal, Sharon became one of the icons of that war.
Nine years later the hero turned villain: As defense minister, Sharon was blamed when Israel's Lebanese Christian allies massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the Lebanon War. Forced to resign as defense minister after a commission of inquiry published its findings, Sharon's political career seemed over.
But 20 years later, after a string of government posts -- including foreign minister in Netanyahu's government -- Sharon defied the odds to become prime minister in March 2001, enjoying stellar approval ratings for much of his term.
It was as prime minister that Sharon seemed to mellow, declaring that "the things you see from here you don't see from anywhere else." The main thing he saw was the need to nurture Israel's strategic relationship with Washington, which has been the cornerstone of his foreign policy and the main reason for his newfound moderation.
Netanyahu, 53, served as an officer in an elite commando unit and nearly drowned in a 1969 operation across the Suez Canal after his dinghy was hit by Egyptian bullets.
Many of his formative years were spent in America, where Netanyahu's father, a Jewish history professor and staunch Revisionist Zionist, found work. After his army service, Netanyahu returned to the United States to study architecture and business administration at MIT.
Back in Israel, he was plucked from a job in a furniture company to serve as an aide to Israel's then-ambassador to the United States, Moshe Arens. It was a short while later, as Israel's highly visible and extremely articulate U.N. ambassador in New York, that Netanyahu first made his name.
His rise in the Likud was meteoric: Netanyahu became party leader at 44 without having held a full ministerial portfolio. His term in office as prime minister, from 1996-1999, was characterized by strained relations with the Clinton administration, which was heavily invested in the Oslo peace process and exerted tremendous pressure on Israel to be more flexible vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
On the domestic scene, Netanyahu openly challenged the existing social, political and economic elites. He instituted important reforms that liberalized Israel's economy and attracted foreign investment, but his term in office was seen as divisive and as threatening Israel's special relations with the United States.
If Netanyahu is elected to the top office again, political observers believe he will want to shed that divisive image and build better ties with the United States by taking centrist positions not too far from Sharon's.
First, though, he will have to beat Sharon for the Likud leadership -- and to do that, he believes, he needs to play to the right.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.