- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

Israel's Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna is running against a scandal-plagued incumbent at a time when the economy is tanking, peace talks with the Palestinians are in a deep freeze, and the government seems incapable of preventing suicide-bombing attacks in the heart of its biggest cities.

On the hot-button issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, Mr. Mitzna's call for withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza wins strong support in the opinion polls.

Yet those same polls indicate that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party will administer an unprecedented drubbing to Labor in Tuesday's general elections.

"That has been the real question to ask in this election," said David Makovsky, a veteran Israeli political observer and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"If things are so bad in Israel right now, why are they so good for Ariel Sharon?"

The rise of the centrist secular party Shinui has been matched by a precipitous decline in support for Labor, which elected a prime minister Ehud Barak just four years ago and still holds the largest single bloc of seats in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament, with 25.

A projection based on the latest polls suggests Labor will fall to 18 seats in the next Knesset, retaining its position as the largest opposition party with just one seat more than Shinui.

Israeli analysts say a number of factors have cemented Mr. Sharon's re-election, but that the overriding issue has been security.

"There's a new fatalism among Israelis today, a lack of hope that diplomacy can achieve anything," Mr. Makovsky said.

Mr. Mitzna, a 57-year-old retired army general and mayor of Haifa, has run a dovish campaign at a time when many in Israel are deeply skeptical of ever striking a lasting deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Israelis may prefer Mr. Mitzna's policies, but the polls suggest they would rather have Mr. Sharon implement them, for fear a too-accommodating Israeli leader would only encourage the country's enemies to demand even more.

Just yesterday, Israeli forces fatally shot two Palestinians and unleashed air strikes after militants killed three Israeli soldiers in a surge of bloodshed that graphically illustrated Mr. Mitzna's dilemma.

In the northern West Bank near Nablus, troops guarding the Jewish settlement of Shavei Shomron killed a Palestinian man and a woman who the army said were members of a group that tried to ambush soldiers.

A third person was arrested and a fourth fled, Israeli officials said.

Mr. Mitzna's Labor Party critics say his biggest tactical error in the campaign was to rule out in advance any postelection "unity government" with Mr. Sharon, an arrangement many undecided centrist voters favored. Mr. Mitzna has said past unity governments, including one that just collapsed last year, have only served to tie Labor to the unpopular economic and social record of the government, depriving it of a critical campaign issue.

Many believe Mr. Mitzna is positioning himself for the next election, assuming he can survive as Labor Party chief after Tuesday's expected trouncing.

"If we can't form the next government, we will have a strong Labor Party and opposition," he told supporters last week. "We won't let this country slip out of our hands."

But Mr. Mitzna has been unable to rouse much enthusiasm for his candidacy at a time when much of the world's attention is focused on Iraq and other difficult security matters.

"How can there be much interest in this election in Washington when there isn't much interest in Tel Aviv?" asked Elie Rekhess, senior associate at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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