Gen. Election

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. And a silent opposition allowed Sharon's policy to seem the best available.

Fortunately, labor rules require a new vote for a prime ministerial candidate ahead of national elections. In August, Mitzna entered the race. As mayor of Haifa since leaving the army in 1993, Mitzna had national name recognition -- but no connection to Barak's failings, or Sharon's. He could run as the candidate disillusioned voters seek, the one named "none of the above." Beyond that, his appeal was that of a "taloned dove" -- an army man who promised to resume peace negotiations and evacuate Israeli settlements. It helped that the best-known incident of his military career was his near resignation from the army after the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre, when he said he had "no confidence in the defense minister" -- Ariel Sharon.

Polls show that despite Israelis' distrust of Palestinians, they increasingly hold views once considered radically left wing. A survey by the Tami Steinmetz Institute at Tel Aviv University, published days before Mitzna declared his candidacy, found 61 percent of the Jewish public backing the establishment of a Palestinian state within a peace agreement. Sixty-four percent supported evacuating most settlements under such an accord. Recognition has spread that continued rule of the Palestinians means endless conflict. Moreover, the "demographic argument" has finally gained traction: In the combined territory of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Arabs will soon outnumber Jews. If Israel wants to be both a democracy and a Jewish state, it must give up the occupied territories. Mitzna seized on that awareness.

In the Nov. 19 primary, Mitzna won by a 15 percent margin. Turnout was high. The rank and file awoke and wanted a party with a clear identity. In a post-victory press interview, Mitzna gave a Yitzhak Rabinesque pledge to "fight terrorism as if there were no peace process, and ... negotiate peace as if there were no terrorism." If talks failed, he said, Israel would withdraw unilaterally to lines it set itself -- a threat to the Palestinians that they'd end up with less land if they stonewalled the negotiations.

Symbolically, Mitzna also blasted Barak, who'd criticized him for his willingness to negotiate with Yasir Arafat. "Ehud is becoming irrelevant," he said in another interview, as if to tell the party it could stop explaining Barak's failure and start answering today's problems.

Yet shedding Barak won't be easy. For worse as well as better, Mitzna, like Barak, belongs to an officer class whose political role has only grown since the Oslo Accords, giving Israel's leadership the look of a democratically elected junta. Oslo shattered old ideologies and made familiar politicians seem irrelevant. Military men offer hope that they can make a secure peace agreement and fight terrorism. The term "general elections" has come to mean "elections between generals."

But the army doesn't teach the subtle art of civilian politics. As mayor, says a veteran Labor pol, Mitzna has "brought the Barak Syndrome" of remaining a general. "Military men don't change," adds the pol. "They give orders." And like Barak, he says, Mitzna has surrounded himself with other ex-officers and failed to show warmth.

More substantively, Mitzna's promised deadline for leaving Gaza is a reminder of Barak's habit of setting deadlines, as though he could command events to fit his schedule. When Barak rushed to pull Israeli troops out of South Lebanon by a promised date, the withdrawal looked like a rout in the face of Shi'ite guerrilla attacks. Critics say the pullout encouraged Palestinians to turn from negotiations to violence. Mitzna must now convince swing voters that his Gaza deadline won't further embolden terror groups.

Sharon is Mitzna's photo negative. He depends on military force to end the conflict with the Palestinians. But even left-wingers admit that after many years in politics, Sharon has learned to control his tongue, build partnerships, avoid showdowns, make other politicians feel that he respects them. The warrior has taught himself to sound grandfatherly, and it has paid off.

Meanwhile, the Likud primary allowed the hard-line Sharon to position himself as a moderate. For that, Sharon owes thanks to Netanyahu, who attacked him from the right, seizing on Sharon's statements that he'd agree to a Palestinian state.

In fact, Sharon's idea of a "state" falls far short of what any Palestinian leader could accept. It would not only be demilitarized, he says, but Israel would control its borders and airspace. Worse, he has yet to agree to the evacuation of any Israeli settlements, meaning that Palestinians would receive only fragments of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- more a Bantustan than an independent country. Netanyahu declarations such as, "Mitzna and Sharon are waving the flag of the Palestinian state," helped hide such fine points.

Even so, Sharon's supposed support for a Palestinian state shows how widely a two-state solution is now accepted. And a Ha'aretz poll published Nov. 29 found that 47 percent of the public supported Mitzna's proposal for a Gaza pullout. The bad news: The survey also forecast that the Likud would receive twice as many Knesset seats as Labor, and right-wing parties together would gain a 68-to-52 majority in the parliament.

Yet Israeli campaigns are volatile and polls imprecise. Sharon beat Netanyahu by 15 percent; a month earlier, polls showed Netanyahu leading. The general election is even harder to call in advance because Israel is dropping direct elections for prime minister. Voters will now cast a single ballot for parliament, which will then pick the chief executive. Many voters aren't yet fully aware of the change, reducing the value of what they tell pollsters.

With just two months to campaign, Mitzna must emerge from being "none of the above" and become a politician who can rally his own party and reach beyond it to a battered public. He will have to shed his military stiffness while convincing voters that he's tough-minded enough to protect them. He must convince Israelis that rather than simply hanging on with Sharon, they can take action, and that ending the occupation will make them safer. The audience is at least grudgingly receptive. Mitzna was chosen because Labor wants to regain its voice. But after two years in which the party went mute in the face of terrorism, he has very little time to get the message across and avoid a debacle.

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