Remember Amnon Lipkin-Shahak? He was the dashing, personable, battle-proven IDF chief of staff who, on hanging up his uniform in 1998, took the familiar generals’ path into politics.

Initial polls for the nascent Center Party he joined were so encouraging that, even before Shahak had begun to spell out his agenda, he was being talked about as a candidate for prime minister.

But then Shahak did start spelling out his agenda and, inevitably, every policy specified made for a proportion of the electorate alienated.

As chief of staff, forbidden from entering partisan minefields, he had been the chief protector of all Israelis. And all Israelis had been able to project their worldview onto him, with no danger of him contradicting them. Now, he was bidding to shape and steward the country in his own image – a fairly liberal one, as it turned out, certainly in terms of readiness to compromise with the Palestinians – and, inevitably, not all Israelis liked it.

Come the elections of 1999, the Center Party mustered a miserable six seats, and it now languishes along with numerous groupings like it on the scrapheap of Israeli political history.

Hail the chiefs. (From left) Current IDF chief of staff Gantz and predecessors-turned-politicians Dan Halutz, Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Shaul Mofaz, pictured last year. (photo credit: Meir Partush/Flash90)

Hail the chiefs. (From left) Current IDF chief of staff Gantz and predecessors-turned-politicians Dan Halutz, Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Shaul Mofaz, pictured last year. (photo credit: Meir Partush/Flash90)

A cautionary tale. And the obvious potential parallel here is with Yesh Atid, the new centrist grouping launched by the dashing, personable, ratings-proven Yair Lapid.

He only formally registered the party this week, and already the polls show him heading for a dozen seats in the coming general elections. Why, if he draws in that beacon of discarded integrity, ousted Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who resigned from the Knesset this week, he could even manage 16 seats, one survey posited, and at a stroke become the leader of the country’s second largest party.

Lapid will know better than most, however, the dangers of counting your Knesset mandates before they’re voted. His father Yosef (Tommy) Lapid did make it into the Knesset with a centrist grouping, and even reached the dramatic heights of 15 seats in the 2003 elections. But then his Shinui party disappeared – poof, gone – in the next elections, after its members chose an unexpected candidate as its deputy leader and the resultant in-fighting revealed its hollow core.

Yair Lapid (photo credit: Roy Alima/Flash90)

Yair Lapid (photo credit: Roy Alima/Flash90)

A week ago, nobody was anticipating elections; now, we all know we’re having them a year early, but nobody can quite explain why. In this kind of absurdly unpredictable climate, there is no way of knowing whether Lapid can sustain his excellent opening numbers.

He made quite an impressive opening pitch on Tuesday night, softening his widely supported insistence on requiring the ultra-Orthodox community to perform some kind of national service by suggesting a grace period of five years to bring the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce. But Yesh Atid looks like a one-man show. And the one man is a former TV anchor, not an ex-general.

Yet Lapid is not the only would-be leader who should beware the curse of the centrists.

While he enjoys what will surely be a brief honeymoon period – already, his party’s constitution is being attacked for the extraordinary powers it affords him, and many of its founders derided as nonentities, family and friends — the Shahak and Shinui precedents already seem relevant to Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima. In the current Knesset, Kadima is the largest party of all, with 28 seats. But it is surely heading for disaster this time.

Created by Ariel Sharon, inherited by Ehud Olmert, it was doomed by Livni’s disinclination to cut the deal with Shas that would have made her prime minister after Olmert resigned in 2008. And Mofaz is demonstrably incapable of reviving its fortunes. However humble his personal origins, the ex-chief of staff and ex-defense minister is nobody’s idea of a social justice obsessive. And there’s simply no need for a party so vague in its orientation that the public can’t be sure if it stands to Labor’s left or right on Palestinian peacemaking.

All of which means that these bizarrely timed elections just might go some way toward returning Israel to its long-lost two party system.

Barring the unexpected – on which, in this part of the world, we can usually rely – Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud is going to win at a canter. Plenty of Israelis feel the pro-settlement prime minister is unhelpfully treading water or worse on the Palestinian front, with dangerous consequences. Plenty are wary of his apparent readiness to strike at Iran. But they are more than offset by the swathe of the electorate that regional instability has shifted into Netanyahu’s hang tough and do next-to-nothing camp.

And his main challenger seems likely to be the largely anti-settlement Labor party, resurgent under a veteran, credible champion of social justice, Shelly Yachimovich. Ehud Barak broke Labor apart to stay in the coalition last year, but it is he, not Labor, that is set to pay the price.

Shelly Yachimovich (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Shelly Yachimovich (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman’s savvily populist Yisrael Beyteynu could do well. The charismatic ex-con, ex-Shas chief Aryeh Deri is capable of winning support – and, most significantly, of drawing voters across the critical divide from center-right to center-left.

But overall, the surprise 2012 general elections are shaping up into an old-style Israel contest between the Likud and Labor, with Netanyahu firmly in the driving seat. Unless that is, the latest dashing, personable candidate can defy the Shahak precedent and sustain the glory of his first days in politics.