Election day is more than four months away, but retired army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak has already begun to transform the face of Israeli politics by becoming the first serious contender for prime minister without the backing of a major political party.
Officially announcing his candidacy for premiership in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Mr. Lipkin-Shahak provided a long-sought yet small window into his views on making peace with Israel's Arab neighbors. The popular Israeli figure, who is sometimes compared to the America's Gen. Colin Powell, is to head a nascent centrist party to be made up of defectors from Israel's two political heavyweights - the left-wing Labor Party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line Likud.
But the new party itself is still a nebulous matter: It has yet to introduce a platform or even decide on a name. Nor has Lipkin-Shahak been able reach an agreement for sharing power with two former members of the Likud party who also claim leadership of the new center party - Ronni Milo and Dan Meridor.
Some analysts say Lipkin-Shahak's candidacy proves that now more than ever, parties in Israel are less about ideology than about the person leading them. And that, it seems, could give Lipkin-Shahak a sizable advantage over Mr. Netanyahu and his challenger from the Labor party, Ehud Barak.
Fresh polls showed that Lipkin-Shahak would beat Netanyahu by the widest margin in a one-on-one runoff election on June 1 - widely expected since none of the 10 candidates for prime minister in the May 17 ballot will likely be able to garner 50 percent of the vote.
But some of the glitter surrounding Lipkin-Shahak's name began to fade when he finally jumped into the political fray. Left-wingers criticized his political coming-out party as too vague or too indistinguishable from the Labor Party, while the right wing complained that the supposedly soft-spoken ex-general had started his campaign off on a nasty and hypocritical note by declaring Netanyahu "dangerous for Israel."
A Gallup poll taken after Lipkin-Shahak's first press conference and subsequent hard-hitting interviews on Israel's two television stations showed that only 37 percent of respondents came away with a positive impression of him. Twenty-three percent had a negative impression, and the rest were undecided.
Yet Lipkin-Shahak's understated demeanor sells itself. The trim, silver-haired ex-general comes off as inadvertently charming, yet not polished or slick - qualities that some of Netanyahu's opponents have attributed to the prime minister as evidence of his having brought American-style PR and accompanying spin doctors to Israel. Polls have found that Israelis have viewed Netanyahu as arrogant at times, while Mr. Barak is deemed by some disappointed Labor Party figures as unable to inspire leadership - and most important, unable to beat Netanyahu.
"Netanyahu doesn't have high ratings for his performance, but the resentment is not really against his politics but the way he conducts them," says independent pollster Hanoch Smith. Mr. Smith says that as likable as Lipkin-Shahak appeared, it was inevitable that his popularity would slide, and it probably will not go up again unless he firms up positions on negotiations with the Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese.
Smith says, "The Israeli public is used to committing oneself on something specific, and it's hard to accept someone on principles. Just because, 'I'm the best candidate against Bibi [Netanyahu] and I'm a good leader,' that's not enough. That doesn't do it."
But if it proves true that Israelis are looking more toward character, in the politics of personality, Lipkin-Shahak seems to have a head start. For one, he had a close personal relationship with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who appointed Lipkin-Shahak to run the Israeli army in 1994 after a lifelong military career. His second wife, Tali, is a respected journalist who used to cover defense issues for the intellectual Haaretz newspaper, and now has her own television interview show.
But in the past week or so opponents started pointing out the string of army mishaps that occurred during his tenure, especially in Lebanon, where Israel maintains a self-declared "security zone." And some are questioning whether, without any political experience, Lipkin-Shahak can lead a rather contentious Israeli polity. Moreover, he continues to come under criticism from Israelis who ask whether it was selfish and overly ambitious of him to refuse an offer to take the No. 2 slot in the Labor Party - which fathered the peace process he is keen to save - in order to form his own party.
Questioned Wednesday by Israel's Channel 2 about the "fire in his belly," Lipkin-Shahak said: "I think it was there before. It's impossible to be chief of staff of the army without ambition." He said that the Labor Party no longer had enough influence, and that many disaffected Likud voters - though deeply disappointed in Netanyahu - would never bring themselves to vote for Labor. "I don't know if Ehud [Barak] can succeed. I know I can."
Platform takes shape
Lipkin-Shahak said he had no opposition to a Palestinian state, suggesting that one already exists on the ground. He said the only limit Israel had to put on such a state was to make sure it didn't have an army - and that there wouldn't be Palestinian territory that Israel couldn't enter or exit when necessary.
"What matters to me is how we do it. We will arrive at the best final agreement possible with the Palestinians, and we will get there together," he said, in a swipe at the confrontational, reluctant approach that Netanyahu has taken in his dealings with the Palestinians. By contrast, Lipkin-Shahak seemed at ease when, as deputy army chief in October 1993, he was appointed by Mr. Rabin to launch Israel's first peace talks with the Palestinians.
Lipkin-Shahak says that although he opposes a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, he would be anxious to return to negotiations with the Syrians, who have de facto control in Lebanon. He also suggested that he would be willing to pay the price for such a peace deal - a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel wrested control of from Syria in 1967.
Lipkin-Shahak drew the line at Jerusalem, however, alluding to polls that show the majority of Israelis want it to remain under Israeli control.
He also says he would not rule out evacuating some of the 150 settlements Israel has in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in exchange for peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has promised that he will never uproot any of the settlers from their homes in the West Bank, which they see as non-negotiable land promised to Israel by God.
At the same time, there are indications that Barak and Lipkin-Shahak could still team up to beat Netanyahu, since their combined popularity is much higher than his. It is possible that between now and election day, Barak and Lipkin-Shahak could reach a power-sharing deal that would create one pro-peace ticket - similar to what Netanyahu did in 1996 by convincing other right-wing parties' candidates for prime minister to be part of his slate, which ran as a joint coalition of the Likud, Gesher, and Tsomet parties.