Only half an hour into "Burning Heart", the DVD produced by Shas for the elections, you're reminded that it is a party that its official name is still "Sephardim Shomrei Torah": Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a deep prayer in a synagogue. The first thirty minutes of the DVD are an especially effective and repeated montage of the same subjects dedicated to poverty and the disengagement.
Just replace the background music from the oud to a balalaika, and Avigdor Lieberman's "Israel Our Home" - which trusts the votes of the Russian community on the agenda of civil marriage and freedom to sell non-kosher meat – would have its signature on that half an hour, without blinking twice.
There are many similarities between Shas and “Israel Our Home,” not only because of the number of seats each party is expected to win – polls show 10-11 each, although no one will be surprised if the numbers go up by two, or even three seats.
Both parties are anchored to a base of distinct sectors: Lieberman to the Russians and Shas to the Sephardic-haredi community; however, both aspire to reach the general public and in their attempt to do so, they mull over how not to lose their home base.
Both, after all, could be sitting in Olmert's coalition the day after.
Both parties, much more than any other party, also pretend to represent Israeli who does not belong to the secular-center-middle-income sector, who largely would vote for the undistinguished center bloc of Kadima.
Shas and “Israel Our Home,” each in its own way, solicit to become a home for the "other." The "other" in these elections is homeless.
Israeli politics, like any other politics, have never focused on ideas and ideologies - two banks for the Jordan River versus opposing the occupation, or capitalism versus social-democracy. It used to be, and still is, politics of identities. That is why the most important development in the past 10 years is not the collapse of the aspiration to the entire Land of Israel, or the victory of the free market initiative, but rather the fall and rise of the earliest Israel.
And these are the 2006 elections: political thesis with no anti-thesis. A ruling coalition sprawling from the Likud to Meretz; one with elements which cannot even be distinguished using a microscope.
No one really believes that Olmert, Peretz, or Netanyahu as prime ministers would act any different from each other when it comes to politics, economy, or internal state affairs. The choice among them is almost a social game, a matter of affection or personal aversion. Those left outside the coalition are torn, dealing with religious, ethnic, personal view of the purpose of the State and its borders. They have no central leadership, not even a dialog. Even during Ben-Gurion’s days such hegemony didn't exist.
It is a situation of imbalance that even if it would be reflected on next Tuesday's results, cannot continue for long. Israel has over one million people living in poverty, but many more than that, people who feel that the existing status quo does not serve them and excludes them. Ultimately, someone will have to personify them in the political power parallel.
Warm blanket of the terrified consensus
Someone will have to change. Shas would have liked to be the leader of the others, but it is too tied to its origin. Yishai cannot rebel against the Rabbis' Council even if he wanted to; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef prefers a sectored party concentrating on Torah in Israel rather than a party that would really challenge the ruling coalition's agenda. It is no coincidence that he prefers Yishai over Arieh Deri, who could have evolved into becoming the challenger of such premise. The thing is that Yishai himself is evolving. This term, no less than Tuesday's results, will be the test of whether he is ready for the challenge.
Yishai feels the dilemma. During his campaign he visited the famous TLV nightclub in Tel Aviv and participated in game show on television. He was surprised by the reception he got (he was surprised much less by the severe reaction inside his Sephardic-haredi camp, which secures him with seven seats out of the total seats anticipated).
He feels the need for rebellion, for political leadership that crosses borders. It is very doubtful whether this need would actually materialize. It is most likely to end in a government ministry post.
The same goes for Lieberman, and of course also for the Ashkenazi-haredi parties who never wanted to get involved in the Israeli daily agenda, only to sell their votes to the highest bidder. The Arabs and the settlers complete the picture: roughly 50 seats representing anyone who the existing system does not work for.
In the U.S., a huge country in which general elections have much less significance to the average citizen, the last elections focused on issues of identity and faith, religion and liberalism. In Israel, the elections took a nap under the warm blanket of the terrified consensus, which becomes visible in the form of the party that will win on Tuesday.
The "big bang", they call it; but just like T.S Elliot, it's not a bang, but in a whimper.
Ofer Shelah is a regular contributor to Israel’s leading newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth