Left Behind

JERUSALEM -- On Monday last week in a cramped Jerusalem convenience store, politics was the topic of the morning. And I didn't have to stay long to realize that things were over for Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party's candidate for prime minister in tomorrow's elections. "Mitzna? Hu pashut loser," laughed a scraggly looking man making sandwiches, employing an English word I had not heard used before by working-class Israelis.

The last few weeks have not been kind to Mitzna, and things only seem to be getting worse. Maariv, one of Israel's two most widely read dailies, printed a poll last Sunday showing that if Labor stalwart Shimon Peres were to run in Mitzna's place, the party would win 29 seats in the Knesset as opposed to the 20 it is predicted to win with Mitzna at the helm. (The Likud Party is predicted to win 30 seats.) The devastating poll created a mini-crisis, with Mitzna vowing to stay on as head of the party. The irony of anyone polling lower than the dovish Peres -- who for generations has been the most respected man in Israel who couldn't win an election -- wasn't lost on the Israelis at the convenience store as they smoked their cigarettes: You can't do much better than Peres if you're looking for a "loser" in the history of Israeli politics.

Mitzna had his chances. A fairly well-regarded mayor of Haifa, he was a new face on the Israeli national scene at a time when a war-weary public might have been persuaded to embrace a new direction. And Mitzna was given an opening by the mounting revelations of corruption surrounding current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Likud. Just weeks ago, questions were growing about a $1.5 million loan that had allegedly helped Sharon pay back possibly illegal contributions from his 1999 campaign. Moreover, the Likud Party as a whole has been rocked by scandal, as several party members were investigated for fraud and bribery in connection with the primary elections. Mitzna tried desperately to sell himself as an honest alternative; the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv was festooned with blue and white election signs advertising Mitzna as "Yashar" -- a word that, in this context, means somewhere between honest and straight-shooting.

More to the point, Mitzna charged -- correctly -- that Sharon has been ineffective on two important fronts: The Palestinian situation has deteriorated badly on his watch and, with unemployment skyrocketing and the shekel at record lows, the economy hasn't looked this bad in a decade or more.

So how did Mitzna turn out to be such a lousy candidate? Most importantly, his politics put him far to the left at a time when the Israeli public is embattled and wary of dialogue with the Palestinians. With Sharon doing nearly everything short of assassination to marginalize Yasir Arafat and undercutting an international push for negotiations, Mitzna said he would begin talks with the Palestinians immediately after taking office. "Talk to Arafat? He's a terrorist!" went the standard retort. Mitzna's counterargument -- that Arafat's the only one to talk to -- didn't fly with the voters. And if negotiations failed after a year? Mitzna promised a unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian areas. But to many voters, especially the crucial undecideds in the middle who brought Ehud Barak to power in 1999 (Labor's last win), that seemed like a guaranteed way to extend the conflict. "He's far worse than Barak," said a Likud-leaning friend of mine.

The complex and sometimes cruel politics of Israel's fractured parliamentary system further sunk Mitzna. Shinui, the secular centrist party led by former talk-show host Tommy Lapid, promised that it would only join the government after the election if Labor and Likud formed a unity coalition to crowd out both Orthodox and Arab parties from the government. Shinui's success had two important ramifications. First, it led Mitzna to declare -- disastrously -- that if he were to lose, he would not join Sharon's government at all. Mitzna's strategy was to tarnish Shinui's appeal among working-class voters by underscoring anti-Sharon sentiment. "Us or them," was how he put it in dramatic political commercials hurriedly prepared for the closing days of the campaign. To make matters worse, Shinui's popularity in the center of the political spectrum -- it could very well win more seats than Labor tomorrow -- pushed Mitzna to the left, furthering the perception among swing voters that he was too dovish to be trusted with the reins of power.

With pledges not to join Sharon and to talk to Arafat as the twin pillars of his late campaign, Mitzna never had a chance. Radio and TV spots featured a catchy, "We believe in you, Mitzna," jingle -- but why anyone should have believed in him was never quite spelled out. "I just don't see a leader there," a liberal Tel Aviv-area friend of mine said of Mitzna.

True, Sharon's message wasn't much more substantial. His commercials featured respected Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz slamming Mitzna's plan for dealing with the Palestinians, and Likud covered buses all over Israel with giant posters saying simply, "Sharon." (with a big red period). But all the sitting prime minister really had to do was hold serve -- and put faith in the fact that most Israelis blame Arafat and Hamas, not him, for the country's woes.

Plain old bad luck didn't help Labor down the stretch, either. In the crucial weeks before the election, with a good chunk of the public undecided, Sharon was refusing to answer certain questions about the loan scandal and avoiding the microphone, George W. Bush-style. With Likud on the ropes, Labor saw its fortunes rising. Then Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space, took off on the shuttle Columbia, Israel became obsessed with space for a few days and the Sharon scandal was off the front page of the tabloids.

Barring the last-minute introduction of Peres as Labor's deus ex machina, Mitzna is about to join Barak as yet another Israeli general-turned-politician who crashed and burned trying to push his country left. Talking heads and pollsters are predicting that Sharon will form a government with the right-wing religious parties on its fringes. Will Mitzna make a good opposition leader? Will he cave and form a Likud-Shinui-Labor coalition? If, after tomorrow's debacle, his Labor colleagues oust him -- which seems likely -- we'll never know.

Eli Kintisch is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He recently returned from a trip to Israel.