JERUSALEM -- I ran into the Labor party politician at a bar mitzvah celebration, a few days after the election in which the Israeli left suffered its worst-ever defeat. "Celebration" is a euphemism. The bar mitzvah boy was the son of a left-wing activist; most of the guests belonged to the same political camp, and the happier ones looked merely morose. A circle of activists, think tankers and journalists formed around the pol, who held forth with enthusiastic glumness.
Labor wouldn't join victorious Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government as junior partner-cum-lap dog this time, he predicted. Surprising everyone, it would actually keep party leader Amram Mitzna's campaign promise to stay in the opposition and determinedly present policy alternatives to Sharon. But the Labor man said he hoped Shinui -- the centrist party that stole much of Labor's secular, middle-class constituency -- would join Sharon's coalition. "If they do, they won't win a single seat next time," he postulated. The move, he said, would destroy Shinui's credibility.
Then the politician turned to prophecy. "This time Sharon's government will last over four years," he said, breaking a long string of unstable governments and early elections. By 2007, he asserted, there will be a Palestinian majority in the combined area of Israel and the occupied territories -- a demographic shift that could end Palestinian desire for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the first priority of the new right-wing government, he asserted, would be to undercut the power of the supreme court, the last bulwark of liberal democracy. His audience looked like a family gathered in an oncologist's office for bad news.
The impromptu speech alluded to a key reason for Sharon's landslide victory in the Jan. 28 election: Labor's inability to get taken seriously. It pointed as well to the high stakes as the left tries to rebuild itself. Sharon's Likud Party won 38 Knesset seats, and the right-wing and clerical parties together took 69 of the 120 seats in Israel's parliament -- an unprecedented majority. Labor sank to a mere 19 seats, and the more plainspoken progressive Meretz Party got just six. Even more telling: Only 68 percent of voters came to the polls in a country where turnout usually approaches 80 percent -- and fewer voted in left-leaning Tel Aviv than in right-wing Jerusalem. Many of the left's voters chose despair.
Besides Sharon, the main beneficiary of Labor's collapse was Shinui, which promised it would force Sharon to form an all-secular coalition, including Labor but leaving out the clerical parties. Then, it declared, it would sever the tie between religion and state and demand tax cuts on higher incomes. Strikingly, Sharon also ran on the pledge that he'd bring Labor into his coalition -- adroitly mixing military toughness with a promise to form a government more moderate than his own party.
So both Shinui and Sharon attacked Labor, embraced it -- and dismissed Mitzna's commitment not to serve in a so-called unity government under Sharon again. "Labor, despite its declarations, will join," said one front-page Shinui election ad, featuring party leader and ex-pundit Tommy Lapid pointing an "I want you" finger at readers. The assertion that Labor was lying won Shinui 15 seats.
Quite simply, the left lost the election because it lost credibility. Voters didn't believe Mitzna's insistence that they must choose between a hard-line government and a pro-peace one. Labor's past leaders -- exemplified by the aging Shimon Peres -- regarded politics as an executive career, never learning to fight parliamentary battles from opposition benches. Labor slunk into Sharon's government two years ago, giving it a more moderate face but doing nothing to stop the military reoccupation of West Bank cities or restart peace talks. When Mitzna said he wouldn't serve as "fig leaf" for Sharon's intransigence, voters ignored him. They assumed they could get Sharon and Labor, or Shinui and Labor, for the price of one.
But Mitzna's platform also flunked the credibility test. He promised to resume negotiations immediately with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. He said that if he didn't reach a peace accord, he'd withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank to lines that Israel would choose, and that he'd evacuate settlements. Because polls show majority support for withdrawal and dismantling at least some settlements, Mitzna expected a receptive audience.
A miscalculation. True, the Israeli center has accepted the concept of a Palestinian state and dismantling settlements -- once far-left positions. The left's arguments have sunk in: Israel can't be both Jewish and a democracy if it continues ruling the occupied territories. Once Palestinians become a majority in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, they'll need only to demand majority rule to put an end to the Jewish state.
But that's theory. Practically speaking, the Palestinian uprising has convinced most Israelis that Arafat can't be trusted to make or keep a peace agreement. When Arafat lost his credibility, so did the Israeli left. "I was wrong not to distance myself from Arafat," admitted Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who quit after the election failure. "The proper time was immediately after the intifada broke out."
Sharon's winning formula was to refuse to deal with Arafat while promising a Palestinian state in a vague future after the uprising ends. Only policy wonks noticed that his "Palestinian state" is a new name for his old plan of creating a series of Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank -- Bantustans rather than an independent country. The vague promise was also enough to satisfy the Bush administration, thereby showing voters that Sharon gets along with the United States, Israel's strategic patron.
Post election, the credibility balance has shifted dramatically. As of this writing, Labor has infuriated both Likud and Shinui by keeping its own election promise instead of theirs. Eager for a cabinet seat, Shinui's Lapid indicated he'd join a Sharon-led coalition without Labor -- and with one of the ultra-Orthodox parties he has blasted for years.
Without Labor, Sharon may need small right-wing parties that reject the words "Palestinian state" no matter what Sharon means by them. Nor do they buy Sharon's diplomatic gambit of saying "yes" to the U.S.-backed "road map" to a Palestinian state and then burying it with qualifications. With those partners, Sharon's ability to act the believable moderate at home or in Washington would evaporate.
If Labor holds firm, it could now potentially fan public opposition to Sharon. It could highlight Sharon's failure to reduce terrorism, and the collapse of the economy under his rule, while his government continues to spend massively on settlements.
Yet the Israeli left's credibility remains linked to two outside players: the Palestinians and the United States. An effective Israeli peace camp requires an effective, public Palestinian peace camp. Otherwise, Labor can only press the idea of unilateral withdrawal, which translates publicly as "retreat" -- a difficult commodity to sell.
Just as important is what happens in Washington. The Sharon government is asking for massive new loan guarantees and military aid. If the Bush administration doesn't link approval to real action toward peace, the buck will pass to Congress, where Israel's supporters will face a hard choice between Sharon's requests and Israel's real needs.
The danger is that Labor could have altogether too much time to rebuild itself. Sharon may prefer a coalition with Labor, but the new Knesset makeup allows him to build a right-wing coalition more stable than any Israel has seen in years. Only by putting new conditions on U.S. economic help, or a new diplomatic initiative, can crack that coalition and force early elections. Otherwise, the grim predictions of the Labor politician I met at the noncelebration could come true: Four years of right-wing rule that could undermine the last chance for peace -- and Israel's credibility as a democracy.