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Labor’s Message

Amram Mitzna appeared on the world stage last fall with the suddenness of a meteor when he was elected chairman of Israel’s opposition Labor Party. His ignominious resignation this week, barely six months into his tenure, continues the meteoric metaphor. He simply flamed out, leaving behind a gloom that seemed deeper than before. The movement that spearheaded the creation of modern Israel now faces a crisis as deep as it has ever known.

Americans, watching from afar, tend to ignore Israel’s internal politics. It strikes us as so much petty squabbling, unconnected to the big issues — war and peace, religion and the spirit — through which Israel touches us here in America. But the future of the Israel Labor Party is more than just petty politics. It is the future of Israel as a multi-party democracy and a beacon of social values that make it worth fighting for.

When Mitzna stepped onto the Israeli national stage last fall, Labor was desperately trying to find its feet after an unprecedented defeat at the hands of Ariel Sharon’s Likud. Its signature issue, peace with the Palestinians, had lost credibility with the voters, thanks to the Palestinians’ unrelenting campaign of murder. The party of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin was divided, exhausted and poised on the brink of minor-party status. Mitzna, a cerebral ex-general and longtime mayor of Haifa, promised to revive the party’s flagging credibility and restore its fighting spirit.

Instead he led it to its worst electoral defeat ever. In the months that followed he failed to articulate a clear alternative to the policies of the Sharon government, failed to capture the loyalty of the party’s squabbling factions — any of them — and failed to establish himself in the public mind as a national leader. Far from restoring Labor’s credibility, he destroyed his own.

But Mitzna’s failure is more than simply a personal tale of a quiet man unsuited to his job. Whoever succeeds him will face the same challenges that broke Mitzna.

One challenge is internal: the infighting that so confounded the man from Haifa. For all its byzantine intrigue, Labor’s essential split is a substantive one, between hawks and doves. Hawks believe the party belongs in a unity coalition with the Likud, in order to moderate the policies of the right and press Israel to seize any possible opening to peace. Doves counter that by joining the coalition Labor gives its sanction to continued settlement-building, foreclosing the possibility of peace — and in the process giving up any opportunity to rebuild its identity and present the voters with a clear alternative. The division is deep and angry, and because the choice is either-or, compromise seems impossible.

Compounding that dilemma is the larger challenge of articulating an alternative to Likud policy. The implacable reality of Palestinian terrorism makes peace seem improbable to the Israeli voter. As it continues, advocates of peace are made to appear naive, or worse. Calling for Israeli concessions seems tantamount to rewarding the Palestinians for their violence. With each new bomb, Labor sinks lower in the polls. The Likud, with its hard-line approach, presents itself to acclaim as the guardian of Israel’s security. Labor seems doomed to irrelevancy, a spent historic force.

The image is far from the truth, however. The reality is that the Likud’s security is no security at all. By insisting on holding onto the West Bank and Gaza until the Palestinians have modified their behavior and attitudes — something few realists expect them to do any time soon — the Likud’s policies doom Israel to continuing vulnerability and unending violence. Keeping the territories means Israel will continue to live in intimate embrace with its sworn enemies. And, given demographic realities, it is only a matter of a decade or two before Arabs outnumber Jews in the territory Israel controls. At that point, the Palestinians are simply a ballot box away from eliminating the Jewish state.

Whatever the fate of President Bush’s “road map” to peace, Israel needs to reach a territorial compromise with the Palestinians. It needs it within the context of an agreement with the Palestinians or without it. It needs it for the sake of its own security and survival, not for the Palestinians’. It needs to separate from the Palestinians not because they have been good neighbors, but because they haven’t been.

Labor’s job is not done. Its message is more urgent than ever. What Labor needs — what Israel needs — is a hard-headed, blunt-talking leader who can tell Israelis the truth.

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