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Mitzna’s Choice

Ariel Sharon faces a daunting challenge as he attempts to sort out the results of this week’s Knesset elections and put together a government that can lead Israel into the next phase of its struggles. All those who care about Israel’s welfare, even those who disagree with Sharon’s vision and his methods, must wish him well as he picks his way through the political minefield. His choices will be fateful ones.

In extricating Israel from its current dilemma, however, the most painful decisions are not Sharon’s to make, but Amram Mitzna’s. The rookie Israel Labor Party leader has painted himself and his party into a corner, leading them to a disastrous showing at the polls while vowing not to join a Sharon-led Likud government under any circumstances. Mitzna’s vow, if kept, will condemn Israel to a protracted period of steadily deteriorating security, growing diplomatic isolation and economic collapse.

True, Mitzna’s argument for going into opposition is a compelling one. During the last two years Sharon has managed, with Labor in tow as junior partner, to drag Israel into what is widely considered the most parlous condition in its history. If Labor continues to be dragged along in Sharon’s shadow, it will tie itself to the worst of Sharon’s failures, while denying itself the benefit of Sharon’s magical popularity, which seems impervious to terrorist attacks, diplomatic setbacks and economic misery. As it is, Israel’s voters continue to blame Labor for policies adopted years ago — policies whose rescinding by later governments, it can be argued, are the reason for the current crisis. Continued membership in a Sharon government, as Mitzna insists, robs Labor of the opportunity to rebuild, learn its lessons and most important, to present the Israeli voter with a fighting alternative.

All true, and yet Labor must rejoin Sharon’s unity government. It must rejoin not for Labor’s benefit but for Israel’s, and for supporters everywhere who look to Israel for inspiration and leadership in a time of war and darkness. Without Labor, Sharon will be forced to join forces with parties on the extreme right that reject any formula offering hope of a way out of the current morass. Sharon, despite his well-earned reputation for toughness, is not an ideologue of territorial messianism. He is a fighter, but a pragmatist. In alliance with Labor, he can be dragged back into a peace process. Tied to the right, he can only head toward the abyss, toward what the Egyptian statesman Osama El Baz, briefing the Forward’s editorial board this week, called “the hell scenario.” Labor can save Israel and the region from this fate, and it must.

In saying this, we are aware of the painful sacrifice Labor is being asked to make. In joining a Sharon government Labor is called on to fall on its sword, to give up the chance — slight though it is — to rebuild itself as a leading force.

No one is more pained at the dilemma than this newspaper. We have stood for more than a century as a voice of the Jewish labor movement here and around the world. We have been partners with Israeli labor, through the historic years when our movement was dominant both in reborn Israel and here on the American Jewish street. We have watched with pain as the lights have gone out, one by one, and conservatives have captured one stronghold after another in the worlds we care about most. If the Israel Labor Party is now facing the end of its long road as a mighty force within the Jewish state, nothing could make us sadder. Nothing, that is, except the catastrophe that threatens the Jewish state if Labor stays out.

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