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Labor Faces an Uphill Battle on Eve of Israeli Vote

Lackluster campaign of its candidate for prime minister has further jeopardized the party's status as parliament's second-largest faction.

January 26, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — 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.

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