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Foreign news coverage of the Israeli election tends to bring a wry smirk to “locals” who are amused at the implication that once the polls close the results will pour in and a neat story written. It just ain’t so.

There have been no real surprises since the respective parties selected their leaders and set their Knesset lists. [Editor’s Note: Israelis vote for parties, not candidates. Votes for the party become mandates for seats in the Knesset (Parliament) on a percentage basis. The party leader that the President believes has the best chance of forming a coalition of 61 seats is given the opportunity to create the government.] Apart from the final reading on centrist-secular Shinui’s surge in strength and the final resting place of Labor’s impending decline, the real story will be written days and weeks after the polls close. Tomorrow’s national exercise will provide Ariel Sharon with the game pieces he will use in assembling the jigsaw puzzle that will become his government.

Albeit somewhat inconvenient for foreign news producers, the Fat Lady will not even be running through her scales until the Labor Party decides whether the Mitzna pledge to stay away from Sharon-led coalitions is campaign rhetoric or reality; and whether the pundits who believe that Sharon is not above turning his back on his traditional right-wing/religious base of support are correct – in whole or in part. That might wait for another oath to be tested: Tommy Lapid’s vow to keep Shinui clear of coalitions that include Shas.

In the final days of the campaign, Sharon and his Likud supporters have been reacting to the National Union Party like Superman reacts to kryptonite. One of the more bizarre pieces of campaign trivia is that Likud’s record-setting Election Day expenditure is aimed not at an opposition party, but rather at a party traditionally viewed as an ally. Peculiarities such as these defy the neat compartmentalization that American news coverage requires.

Try this one out on American voter/viewers: “Elect George W. Bush and get Al Gore” – in a senior administration position. In the Israeli version, Ariel Sharon – already conceded to be a landslide winner — wants the man he has discredited for months as “inexperienced” and even “reckless” to share his power instead of sharing it with his own traditional allies. And he wants it in order to obviate resistance to his adherence to a policy (creation of a Palestinian state) that is opposed by the party that he represents. The man that no one believes could have become Prime Minister without years of support from religious parties now stands poised to create the first secular government in Israel’s history. But it won’t happen on Tuesday night.

While waiting for the story to be written, American audiences might find the slapstick fight for the Anglo vote between fringe parties to be of interest. Deemed to be lacking any real worth until this election, parties such as Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah discovered the English-speaking sector as part of a desperate search for any remaining constituency that could provide a quick-fix for their rapidly disappearing strength. The National Union also joined the fray, albeit from a far less desperate position. Having been starved for affection for so long, the Anglos appear to be rising to the occasion, seemingly happy to be used in return for remarkably little beyond a chance to show their relative worth to the politicos who have ignored them until now. And the most recent polls indicate that they may yet realize at least some gratification.

Covering Israel, like living in Israel, demands “savlanut” (patience). The real story might be why such a tiny country is being deluged with such a vast foreign press corps reporting on its election. What a shame it would be if they missed the real fun. Good coverage only begins on Election Day. The secret is to “stay tuned.”

We’ll be right back….

MICHAEL FRIEDSON is a veteran Israel-based journalist who is editor of www.themedialine.org.
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