The Price of Labor's Impotence

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount" (Oxford University Press).

The cabby who drove me across Jerusalem had a desperate tone. "Why aren't people voting for Amram Mitzna?" he demanded.

Mitzna, the Labor Party candidate for prime minister in Tuesday's Israeli election, has promised to renew negotiations with the Palestinians -- and if that doesn't work, to withdraw from much of the West Bank unilaterally, to lines Israel will choose. The night-shift driver was sure that this was the only way to end the violence of the last two years, to bring back tourists and to restore his livelihood. "Christmas! Rosh Hashana! I used to get $500 in fares on a holiday night, when the town was packed," he said, lifting his hands from the wheel while I stared nervously into the rain. "This year, I didn't pull in $50."

I like talking politics with cabbies. They ask big questions in the small, angry words of people making a bad living. This guy certainly did: The mystery of Israel's dismal election campaign is why Mitzna's challenge to incumbent Ariel Sharon has engendered so little public support. The election mood is volatile. But barring a major last-minute shift, Sharon's Likud Party will get at least 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, next to 20 or fewer for Labor, and the uncompromising Sharon will get another term. The prospect is frightening.

Mitzna, one would think, had dream conditions. By any objective standard, Sharon's record after two years as Israel's leader is a disaster. He promised "peace and security" and delivered neither.

Trying to crush the Palestinian uprising by military force, he has sent the Israeli army to reoccupy the cities of the West Bank -- but Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis have only escalated. Today, it's far scarier to ride a bus in Israel than it was when Sharon took office. Tourists and investors have vanished; unemployment is rising; the economy is shrinking.

Meanwhile, police are investigating corruption in the Likud Party, with Sharon and his two sons likely to face questioning.

On the crucial issue of war and peace, polls show that a majority of the Israeli public favors precisely the steps that Mitzna proposes: negotiating with the Palestinian Authority, agreeing to a Palestinian state, withdrawing unilaterally if a peace accord can't be reached. Most voters have accepted that Israel will have to give up the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that ruling the Palestinians is fatal for the country. True, many have accepted this with as much enthusiasm as someone agreeing to major surgery. But it's Mitzna who declares he'll carry out the vital operation.

So why, as the cabby asked, will so few people vote for him? For at least four good reasons.

First is Labor itself. To Israel's misfortune, the peace option is identified with a party that, as political scientist Gad Barzilai points out, has been in decline for decades. Labor was Israel's founding party, but it's on its way to becoming a memory, something schoolkids will attempt to recall on history tests. The average age of party workers, as one disillusioned activist puts it, is "senior" -- hacks who joined decades ago because Labor was in power. The party is also short on cash, and some of what it does have it spends questionably -- the Jerusalem branch plans to spend most of its meager election day budget on sandwiches for its observers at polling stations. Getting out the vote? Forget it.

In the Labor primary last November, Mitzna defeated incumbent party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, as Barzilai notes, by running against the party. He attacked the Labor establishment for sharing power with Sharon in a so-called "unity government." But Mitzna lacks the personal prestige to win votes without party backing, and much of the colorless old guard is waiting for him to crash so it can dump him.

Labor is also tainted by the failure of its last prime minister, Ehud Barak, to complete the Oslo process and sign a peace agreement with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. Mitzna has tried to present a new post-Oslo, post-Barak option for ending, or at least reducing, the conflict with the Palestinians. But much of the Labor establishment hasn't embraced his ideas. The party's leadership put its faith in Barak at Oslo; when he failed, loyalists blamed Palestinians. Since then, they have been running the party with all the enthusiasm of a clergyman who has stopped believing in God but can't find another job.

Which brings us to Mitzna's second problem, the Palestinians. Barak was a poor diplomat, but it was the Palestinians' turn to violence when peace talks failed that persuaded Israelis they lacked a partner for a peace deal. It may be that Arafat could not have stopped the terror attacks even if he had tried; but he has also flunked on effort. Nor do Israelis see any sign of a real Palestinian peace movement openly opposing terror attacks and pushing for compromise. In desperation, Israelis may say they support a unilateral pullout -- but they'd much prefer an agreement, with a solid promise of quiet after the withdrawal. Every bomb blast and chorus of ambulance sirens makes an agreement seem like a distant hope -- and Mitzna seem like a dreamer. The gut reaction,the right-now demand, is to hit back, and that is the one thing Sharon knows how to do.

That have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too, support-peace-and-support-Sharon attitude characterizes much of the Israeli public, which is Mitzna's third problem. "Even when they want the left's solution, they want the right to do it," says political scientist Michal Shamir. That contradiction is strongest within Israel's wide political center. The center accepts the need for territorial compromise but wants the least costly deal. It assumes that a deal cut by the right will cause less civil strife within Israel.

The idea that Sharon will make peace, that he's actually willing to compromise, is pure wishful thinking. He is able to maintain the illusion in large part because there's no push from outside to resume negotiations. That points to Mitzna's fourth problem: the Bush administration, which has tacitly endorsed Sharon's hard-line policies.

For all practical purposes, President Bush has taken the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy off the table. He has rarely questioned Sharon's military actions, and he has not pressured Israel to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank. If America were pushing for a peace effort, Sharon's intransigence would be revealed much more sharply, and Israelis would be more inclined to vote for a candidate capable of seizing the moment. In a new variation on chaos theory, the butterfly ballot in Florida is helping to swing an election in the Mideast.

The price is high. The new Sharon government is likely to be haunted by corruption charges, with the prime minister spending more time on his legal defense than national defense. For Israel, that means more political instability. In the meantime, the dream of ending the conflict with the Palestinians will be delayed again. When and if the Bush administration remembers that peace in the Middle East is a U.S. strategic interest, it will face the intractable Sharon instead of a cooperative Mitzna. And my hard-working cabby, dreaming of tourists, will find his till empty for many nights to come.

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