IN THE LOBBY OF THE JERUSALEM Convention Center, glossy campaign leaflets of wannabe Knesset members carpeted the floor. Activists flowed from the hall where the Labor Party's newly chosen leader, Amram Mitzna, had pledged to order Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip upon becoming prime minister. The party convention was ending unexpectedly early, as Mitzna's overwhelming victory had persuaded backers of ex-party chief Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to drop a challenge on how to pick Knesset candidates for Israel's Jan. 28 elections.
I spotted a Knesset member, a Ben-Eliezer man. "Ah," he said, cutting short a conversation with two aides and giving me a nearly credible smile. "Good to see you. I'll have much more time for you now that we'll be in the opposition."
"What are you talking about?" said one aide. "They'll crawl back into the government." She meant the government that incumbent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would form after the election. Neither she nor her boss entertained the idea that Mitzna would win.
Near the exit, I spotted Mitzna. He wore a white shirt, buttoned to the top for a tie, but the tie was gone, as was the jacket. Unlike other former army men in politics (a Labor insider once described Sharon and Ben-Eliezer as "650 pounds of ex-general"), he looked like a man who jogs and turns down dessert. His salt-and-pepper beard was precisely trimmed. I introduced myself as a newsman. "But I don't want to talk now," he said, the corners of his mouth curled down, as if he were an officer talking to a new recruit rather than a candidate who needs the coverage. In the cab home, I listened to radio headlines about the death count from the morning's terrorist bombing of a Jerusalem bus, and about Sharon's coast toward victory in the Likud Party primary. Mitzna's speech didn't rate airtime.
Those few minutes encapsulated Labor's predicament--and that of Israel's larger pro-peace camp--as elections approach. By choosing Mitzna, Labor's members have revived the party and Israeli politics. After a long paralysis, Labor is again offering a policy alternative, built on a rapid end to the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In itself, that's cause for hope. Ironically, even Sharon's defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud primary is a sign that the Israeli public has accepted the need for a Palestinian state. Yet to present its dovish message, Labor has again turned to an ex-general--an indication of how deeply terror and distrust of Palestinians dominate political debate.
Labor's crisis began with the collapse of the Camp David summit and the start of the new conflagration between Israel and the Palestinians. Ehud Barak, who'd won the premiership as a man on horseback who would bring peace, was discredited--but so was the idea that Palestinians were willing to reach accommodation with Israel.
The result was Sharon's landslide election in February 2001. A shattered Labor Party joined Sharon's "national unity" coalition, providing bipartisan backing for ending negotiations and reoccupying West Bank cities. Last year, in a low-turnout primary for party leader, Labor picked Ben-Eliezer, who was then Sharon's defense minister. Ben-Eliezer's backers claimed only he could bring back centrist voters. Yet as Ben-Eliezer carried out Sharon's military policy, Labor vanished as a political alternative.
Analyzed coldly, Sharon's tenure as prime minister has been disastrous. Curfews, roadblocks and "targeted killings" against suspected terrorists haven't ended attacks on Israeli civilians. Indeed, within Israel the death toll has climbed precipitously. Meanwhile, the economy has collapsed.
Yet Sharon remains popular. The public blames the Palestinians, not the prime minister. Terrorism creates public support for muscular answers that, even if they don't succeed, hold off the deeper fear of feeling weak. …