"If I win today," promises Ehud Olmert, "I'll never smoke a cigar in the prime minister's office."
In Israel, the cigar is seen as a sign of self-indulgence, of ostentation, of hedonism. Netanyahu and Barak also smoked cigars, and their terms as prime minister went up in smoke quickly. Olmert is not keen to follow in their footsteps.
Whoever becomes Israel's next prime minister, we must hope this won't be the last concession he will make to public opinion.
Pay no attention to the claims emanating from the bored faces staring at you from the television; the truth of the matter is that the election campaign that ends today was the most dramatic the country has ever known. It shattered social and political conventions and sent all the big boys into a tizzy.
The campaign has been like a reality show with endless episodes. It started one clear night in November, and the end of which has yet to be written.
We expect our prime ministers to be charismatic. If elected, Olmert will not bring any charisma with him. Charisma will come only later – it depends mainly on him.
In the first episode of this drama, Amir Peretz beats the polls and surprises even himself by beating Shimon Peres for the Labor Party chairmanship. His victory makes Labor's social agenda, and Peretz himself, into the main issue of the day.
As party chairman, he leads Labor's ministers out of the government and forces Sharon to speed up his plans to break up the Likud.
The second episode takes place just 11 days later. Sharon creates a new ruling party out of thin air, Peres jumps ship over at Labor, bringing much of the party's old school with him. Whereas Peretz won the development towns, he lost the party's traditional constituency. He made a rookie's errors. In no time, the bon ton moves to Kadima.
The hero of the third episode is President Moshe Katsav. Egged on by Likud members Reuven Rivlin and Michael Eitan, Katsav sets March 28 as Election Day, instead of March 8, as Sharon wanted. For more than four months Israel has no elected government. Sharon is concerned, but gives in. This concession draws a heavy price from Kadima, but we will only know how heavy in coming episodes.
Government Secretary Yisrael Maimon, who represented Sharon during negotiations, is so angry with Katsav that he refuses to appear at the president's residence in Jerusalem.
The heroes of the fourth episode were the doctors. They put Sharon in hospital once, on December 18, release him a few days later, and re-admit him for good on January 4. The question of just how much the medical treatment contributed to the second stroke is open for debate.
While out of hospital Sharon works just four hours per day. People thought he was back to normal. They were wrong.
Netanyahu and Olmert
The hero of the fifth episode was Netanyahu, who won the Likud chairmanship on December 19. Netanyahu has three weeks of relative calm. He manages to moderate the party's Knesset slate, takes control of the central committee. The Labor Party steals the spotlight with its own election list, and then Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh does the same by winning the Palestinian elections.
The hero of the sixth episode is Ehud Olmert, who becomes both prime minister and leader of a party pushing for elections overnight. He is faced with three dramas: Amona, the prison in Jericho, and the international campaign against Hamas.
He loses points at Amona, but wins some back in Jericho. His biggest gain also made the elections for him, even though he said little: Dealing with Hamas.
On one hand he portrays himself as someone who rejects the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority; on the other hand, he makes sure the world continues to fund that body, at least until Israel's elections. Despite Netanyahu's propaganda, terrorism plays no part in these elections. Likud threats are the sound of a tree falling in an empty forest.
Learning the ropes
Olmert learned the job on the fly. The headlines showed falling support for Kadima, but the more meaningful story is how the freefall can be stopped. Voters move from supporting Sharon to supporting Kadima to supporting Olmert.
He is careful not to sit in Sharon's chair: Workers in the prime minister's office tell him how disgusted they were when Shimon Peres sat in the prime minister's chair drinking a beer the day after Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. Olmert gets the message.
The hero of the seventh episode is Avigdor Lieberman, who broke through the ethnic glass ceiling and became, for a few days, anyway, a bon ton for the secular right.
But starting today, Lieberman will have much to supply: sitting in government, quitting it, coupling with the Likud and to stand at its helm.
His popularity is a one-shot deal: If he doesn't capitalize on it, he will be gone.
Lieberman's ideas are dangerous. This doesn't prevent him from achieving a two-digit number of Knesset seats.
The ninth, and most surprising, episode, concerns retirees. They looked around, and all of a sudden became the marginal party most likely to actually make into the Knesset. As of this morning, they are a bon ton.
They will enter the Knesset with no one having checked out the seriousness of their platform or their abilities, and with a former Mossad agent for a leader who owes his business success to Fidel Castro.
This drama has its own rules: Sharon, who disappeared during episode four, was asked to reappear during episode seven. He didn't make it.
Peretz, who started out making big promises, quickly became a joke, and repositioned himself a suitable junior partner in someone else's coalition. He is one of the most interesting people in this term: Netanyahu was the tragic figure. It doesn't matter what he said or what he did. It seemed that the violence itself – and not just the media – tried hard to punish him.
Olmert did what Sharon never would have done on the eve of elections: He told voters what his plans were should he be elected. This was a brave move. According to his advisors, it was a gamble.
His plan to withdraw from the vast majority of the West Bank pushed right-wing voters away from Kadima. But it made it possible for Olmert, if he is elected, to carry out the plan with a clear public mandate. He turned today's election into a referendum on the future of Judea and Samaria.
There are four main messages to take away from this election campaign:
1. We must continue withdrawing from territory and continue to pull down settlements.
2. We must reduce the social gaps in this country.
3. The country is ready for a new, civilian leadership.
4. Corruption must not be allowed to continue. The political establishment must be held accountable.
These four messages are healthy ones.
It started with a dream of a "big bang": We would have an old-people's party, headed by Sharon, Peres, and Shinui’s Lapid. One's in the hospital, the second gets a lot of honor but has virtually no real influence, and the third was unceremoniously dumped from the body politic.
They say that revolutions devour their children. In our case, it has devoured the parents. As of this morning, the kids are feeling pretty good.
Nahum Barnea is a regular contributor to Israel’s leading newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth