Labor Faces an Uphill Battle on Eve of Israeli Vote

Times Staff Writer

In the dappled morning sunshine, Amram Mitzna stood with bowed head before the polished black and white granite gravestone of Yitzhak Rabin, the warrior-turned-politician who forged landmark peace accords with the Palestinians before being cut down by an Israeli assassin's bullet in 1995.

It was not only an occasion to mourn a man remembered as one of Israel's great fallen leaders, but also an elegiac moment for the peace-driven campaign of Mitzna. The former army general appears set to lead his Labor Party to a defeat of historic proportions in elections Tuesday.

Friday, the latest round of surveys indicated that Labor -- the party of Rabin and Israeli founding father David Ben Gurion, with long and proud ties to many of the nation's cherished institutions -- faces a difficult fight even to retain its status as the second-largest faction in the Knesset, or parliament.

Victory over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-nosed Likud Party had been regarded as a near-impossibility from the start of the campaign two months ago. However, those in the country's beleaguered peace camp -- and many other Israelis weary of more than two years of unremitting bloodshed -- had believed that a credible showing by Mitzna could help nudge the Israeli leader in the direction of negotiations with the Palestinians.

But Mitzna's campaign not only failed to come alive -- it appeared, in its waning days, to be in a state of meltdown. "Labor In Free Fall," said a headline last week in the respected daily newspaper Haaretz.

In the final week of the campaign, acrimonious infighting flared into the open, with some disgruntled members urging Mitzna to step aside as Labor's leader. Many campaign events were so sparsely attended that the candidate's entourage outnumbered supporters.

Corruption allegations against Sharon failed to make a substantial dent in the prime minister's standing, while Mitzna found himself embroiled in allegations -- which he denied -- of kickbacks involving municipal construction projects in Haifa, where he is mayor.

Polls consistently suggested that even though many voters support Mitzna's core positions -- relinquishing Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank and opening talks with the Palestinians without preconditions -- they worried that he would concede too much, too fast.

"There is a basic paradox in Israeli politics of wanting moderate conciliatory positions but preferring a tough right-wing politician to be the one to carry them out," said Asher Arian of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank. "The notion of unilateral movement is not popular."

Sharon is perceived by the public as better able to negotiate with the Palestinians, some analysts said, even though no talks are on the horizon and the prime minister insists that there will be none as long as terrorist attacks continue.

"You can't say, 'I'll give you this' and not expect the other side will then ask for more," said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "The Middle East is a bazaar, and many Israelis believe" that Mitzna's approach to bargaining is naive.

By the end of last week, things had gotten so bad that Likud officials were said to be worried that Labor would not win enough seats -- some forecasts said it would receive as few as 18 in the 120-member Knesset -- to be an attractive coalition partner, even though Sharon has said he hopes to form a broad-based government with Labor. Shinui, one of the smaller parties, is expected to come in third with as many as 16 seats.

When picked two months ago as Labor's leader, Mitzna was seen as an offbeat but appealing candidate. The graying, professorial-looking 57-year-old was a novice on the national scene, respected for his competence in running Haifa, the city with perhaps the best track record for Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Mitzna also possessed the key credential for any Israeli politician running on a peace platform: an impressive battlefield resume. He rose from tank commander to general, was wounded several times along the way and acquired a reputation for coolness under fire.

One much-repeated story dates from the Six-Day War in 1967, when Mitzna calmly pressed ahead after the commander of his tank battalion was decapitated by shrapnel before his eyes. He used a military map to drape the maimed body and shield his men from the sight.

It was during that war that Mitzna pledged to stop shaving until there was peace with the Arabs. He has worn his trademark beard ever since.

Israel's 1982 war in Lebanon brought Mitzna, then a general, into open confrontation with Sharon, who was defense minister. Mitzna threatened to resign over his superior's conduct of the war, including the massacre by Christian Lebanese allies of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps outside Beirut, for which Sharon was ultimately held indirectly responsible. Then-Prime Minster Menachem Begin prevailed on the young officer to stay.

During the electoral campaign, Mitzna has repeatedly invoked what he called the "catastrophic situation" facing Israelis -- not only the grinding conflict with the Palestinians, but also the sharp economic deterioration during Sharon's tenure that has left record numbers below the poverty line.

Labor, with its socialist roots, has always made social spending a parliamentary priority. But to the intense frustration of Mitzna's strategists, polls suggested that even the most downtrodden Israelis were supporting Sharon.

"I cannot understand why the people suffering under Sharon's government, living in poverty, are still voting for him," said Rabbi Michael Melchior, who heads a small religious faction aligned with Labor. "It's beyond comprehension."

Israel is not known for slickly mounted political contests, and putting too professional a spin on things sometimes arouses voter mistrust. But even by the standards here, Mitzna's campaign seemed amateurish and disarrayed. The candidate himself has cut an awkward figure, sometimes appearing at a loss for words when it was time to chat up voters.

The world of Israeli politics can be an extraordinarily cutthroat one, and commentators have been quipping that Mitzna possesses the ultimate liability: He's a nice guy.

In the eyes of some, however, Mitzna also represents a long-resented Israeli elite -- kibbutz-born, intellectual-minded, European-descended -- whose hold on power is now loosening.

Under the electoral system, voters cast their ballots for parties, which hold primaries and numerically rank their candidates for the Knesset. Some Laborites who are low on the party's "list," and thus set to lose their parliamentary seats, rebelled after a poll last week suggested that the party would get more votes if former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the 79-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was at the helm. The rebels urged Mitzna to step down; he refused, and Peres said he wasn't interested anyway.

Mitzna also had to fight the "Barak factor" -- the public's still-unforgiving perception of Ehud Barak, the former Labor prime minister who was trounced by Sharon two years ago. Many Israelis believe that the unilateral pullout of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, carried out by Barak in May 2000, emboldened the Palestinians to launch their uprising four months later.

The initial appeal that Barak enjoyed as a political newcomer has changed and hardened into a distrust of inexperienced politicians, analysts say.

For his part, Sharon has given the impression that he is campaigning against his former opponent rather than his current one. Last week, he gave a speech in which he did not even mention Mitzna but dwelt at length on the failings of Barak.

Heading into his final round of campaign appearances, Mitzna maintained a dignified bearing, but he hardly looked like a happy man.

On Friday, as he paid a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, right-wing hecklers catcalled while he prayed and touched his hand to the ancient, massive yellow stones. "You hate Jews!" one yelled.

During his visit to the grave of Rabin, he appeared reflective and subdued.

"Seven years ago, we had a moment when we could have had peace," he said softly. "We cannot bring him back to life. But we can continue what he started. It is possible. It is still possible."

Then he retreated behind a cordon of security men and stood still, hands in his pockets, waiting to be driven away.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°