The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 23, 2003

Editorial: DOES LABOR REALIZE IT LOST?

Despite the solid thrashing it received at the ballot box last month, the Labor Party continues to act as if it were not aware of the election results.

Though he controls just 19 seats in the Knesset, compared to the 40 in the hands of the Likud, Amram Mitzna is nevertheless trying to compel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to adopt Labor's platform if he and his colleagues are to acquiesce in joining the new government.

When the initial results came in on the night of the January 28 election, Mitzna ascended the podium at Labor headquarters in Tel Aviv and solemnly acknowledged that the people had spoken. "The voter cast his ballot," he said, "and we accept his choice, even if the results are painful." But despite those initial sentiments, Labor's leaders have not followed through, repeatedly insisting that whereas they might respect the voters' wishes, they will only join a unity government if Sharon accepts what the voters rejected.

Speaking 10 days ago at a birthday party in Tel Aviv, former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer put it rather bluntly: "If the prime minister agrees to all my conditions, I think we should sit with him." How generous. And Mitzna himself has said on more than one occasion that Labor would join Sharon, despite an explicit pre-election promise not to do so, if the prime minister were to agree "to evacuate all Gaza Strip and isolated settlements, stop spending billions on the territories, and immediately launch negotiations with the Palestinians."

Yet that is precisely the political program which Labor put forward to the Israeli public, and which the public overwhelmingly rebuffed by a large margin. The people sent a loud and clear message, returning the Likud to power with double the number of seats it previously held, while cutting Labor and its allies on the Left down to size.

This had little to do with Mitzna's personality, which many Israelis were in any event unfamiliar with, and everything to do with the policies he proposed, which were little more than a continuation of the now defunct Oslo process. After enduring a decade of Labor-inspired concessions to the Palestinians, and the wave of bloodshed it provoked, the voters were in no mood to continue pursuing a path that had so obviously and devastatingly failed.

It is therefore neither realistic nor even logical for Labor to now expect the new coalition guidelines to reflect its political agenda, when that very same agenda received a thumbs-down from the electorate. During the election campaign, Sharon made clear that his diplomatic plan was to remain in sync with US President George W. Bush's June 24 vision of two states, provided that the Palestinians changed their leadership and fought terrorism. To this date, Labor has not explained what is wrong with this vision, and why Israel should be more accepting of the Palestinian leadership than the president of the United States.

Labor, it seems, is determined to define itself politically by moving to the left of Sharon's diplomatic program, no matter how far left Sharon himself moves. With his open support for the principle of Palestinian statehood, Sharon has already moved to the left of much of his own party.

Given the stance of the United States, the ongoing war against terrorism, and the outcome of the election, it is difficult to understand why Labor cannot find a way to work with Sharon in a joint effort to defeat terrorism first and leave diplomacy for later. Labor's unwillingness to do so is not just bad politics, but could actually prolong the war and push away the diplomatic option that it presumably wishes to bring closer.

On Friday, Sharon and Mitzna held a marathon four-hour session, which Labor sources variously described as "discussions to clarify Sharon's stance" or "an exchange of views," but which were almost certainly the equivalent of coalition talks. Though the two reportedly agreed to convene again last night, the meeting was called off after Mitzna insisted on a written commitment from Sharon about the concessions he was willing to make to accommodate Labor's demands.

This type of behavior only underlines the need to keep Labor out of the government at this stage, because it obviously has not yet succeeded in digesting its rejection by the bulk of Israelis. At this point, the best cure for Mitzna and his friends would be a spell in the opposition, where they might finally come to realize that, on January 28, the people of Israel chose another path.

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