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December 20, 2002
Winds of Change?
As Israeli opinion shifts, despair is a constant.

Amram Mitzna, Israel Labor Party candidate for prime minister.
Israeli history has shown that the course of national politics can do an about-face in 24 hours. The current election run-up for a January 28 vote is proving no different.

The candidates of the two major parties are sitting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the center-right Likud Party and former general and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna for left-of-center Labor. According to an early December poll by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the Likud list was expected to take the premiership and almost double its seats in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature.

The Labor Party, on the other hand, is struggling to make over a leftist platform in a time when most Israelis have lost hope in the prospect of peace with Palestinians. After more than a year of working hand-in-hand with Likud in a coalition government, Labor’s Mitzna is now hard-pressed to distinguish his party from Sharon’s.

Mitzna is best known in Israel for his controversial 1982 letter to then Prime Minister Menachem Begin outlining his reasons for resigning from the army to protest the Lebanon war. “He was one of only two officers in the army who protested this venture,” recalls far-left activist Uri Avnery, who reported extensively and critically on the Lebanon war. Later, Mitzna regained his hawk credentials at the head of the West Bank’s military government during the first Palestinian uprising.

Today, the Labor Party leader is toeing a line that calls for negotiations with Palestinians, but also pledges: “If you continue with terror, we will beat you to a pulp.” He has dovishly promised to withdrawal unilaterally from Gaza within a year, but his own party list is so stacked with more moderate voices that some analysts wonder if declarations like these go far enough in answering the Israeli public’s widespread lack of hope for peace. “People desperately want a solution, but were convinced by [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak that Palestinians do not want peace,” Avnery says. “The country is waiting for leadership. It is steeped in despair and fatalism and deepening economic and social depression.”

But days after the Ha’aretz poll showed the right wing leading the way, allegations of vote-buying in the Likud primaries began to bleed the party’s support. First-hand accounts of requests for money in exchange for votes have spurred a police investigation that may implicate one of Israel’s crime families and even Sharon’s own son. While Sharon has promised to expel wrongdoers from the party, the scandal has tainted Likud in the eyes of voters.

To the right of Sharon are a host of politicians who preach expulsion of Palestinians, and the current prime minister knows that if he wins too many votes, he will be forced to craft a far-right coalition that will be subject to the whims of his radical partners and be wide open for criticism from the United States. Instead, Sharon wants once again to join hands with Labor in another “unity government”—a plan supported by most Israelis. Whether a weak Labor can resist the pull of insider influence, choosing instead to remain in the opposition and rebuild its platform, remains to be seen.

The Palestinian leadership, while champing at the bit to support Mitzna and bring about some thaw in bilateral relations, cannot tread too heavily without spurring a backlash against its perceived allies. Instead, Palestinian officials are working in concert with the European Union to get their armed opposition—groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad—to stay attacks on civilians inside Israel, attacks that could feed the desire for war.

That active engagement means little for the Palestinian public, who are largely indifferent to either Israeli candidate. In an odd parallel in despair, 75 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza told pollsters last week that they don’t think peace relies on either candidate. “Mitzna articulates his program as ‘Gaza without settlements,’ ” notes refugee rights advocate Sari Hanafi. “It is not surprising that this message has not captured the imagination of Palestinians.”

Finally, in just one more bizarre twist in the election free-for-all, the Israeli attorney general in mid-December threatened to disqualify one of the six parties representing Israel’s 1 million Palestinian citizens on the basis of a 1985 election law that bans parties whose “objects or actions, expressly or by implication, include ... negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

Knesset member Azmi Bishara has already been stripped of his parliamentary immunity to stand trial for allegedly making inciteful comments supporting the right of Palestinians to resist occupation. Bishara has responded to the threat of being blacklisted by accusing Israel’s attorney general of acting as “a tool in the hand of the extremist right.”

Ariel Sharon, by calling for a Palestinian state one day but acting to shore up settlement construction the next, is playing straight to the ambivalent heart of the country. “That’s the absurdity of our political life—empty talk has turned Sharon into ‘a leftist’ in the Likud,” writes journalist Amira Hass in disgust. “In other words, we’ve reached the stage where someone who doesn’t explicitly preach expulsion or transfer of the Palestinians out of the country or perpetuation of the military regime over them is a ‘leftist.’ ”


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