If Mitzna wants to lead, he needs to play coalition game

Instead, it is a clash of emotions, dominated by hate, fear and discrimination.

Tuesday's elections are deemed by many voters to involve a choice not between competing programs and ideologies, but rather a search for a father figure who will instill confidence and a sense of being an integral part of The Tribe.

The current father figure, Ariel Sharon, is somewhat controversial, because of shadows of his past and recent accusations against him. In the absence of an alternative, the voters who need him do not want to give him unilateral power. They want checks and balances on his leadership. Therefore they prefer to see him surrounded by other elders of The Tribe from right and left in a national unity government, with Labor and Shinui as its main ingredient.

Labor, under the leadership of Amram Mitzna, refuses to understand the wishes of voters for such checks and balances. Instead of finding the right way to respond to this phenomenon without compromising the party's principles, Labor rejects it out of hand. This has been Mitzna's cardinal mistake throughout the campaign. He has failed to answer to the voters' emotional inclination toward a unity government as a solution to the country's problems. He has failed to persuade the voters that he is the best alternative. As a result, many voters prefer Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, and Sharon is laughing all the way to the polling booth.

According to public-opinion polls, voters believe that we need to fight harder against terrorism, while employing defensive measures in the form of a sophisticated electronic fence. The majority believes that we must continue to strive for peace based on territorial compromise, a Palestinian state, and evacuation of some of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza areas. The majority wants a different social order of priorities with less power for the Orthodox parties.

The majority believes that only a unity government with Likud, Labor and Shinui at its center will lead us in that direction. The potential electorate of Labor does not want to vote for a party that rules out this option a priori.

Thus, instead of his negative stance, Mitzna should have stated his conditions for participation in such a government without repeating Labor's mistakes of playing only a third fiddle in the last coalition. Otherwise no one will ever be able to understand why Labor participated for quite a considerable period in Sharon's government and left it only because of minor economic issues.

Had Sharon accepted some of Labor's demands, it would have still been part and parcel of his government and elections would have been held in November 2003. Mitzna does not understand that his only chance to become prime minister is by entering a unity government as defense or foreign minister and building a record of performance, integrity and success on major issues of governance.

Although many things can change in the course of a few days, the chances of a Labor-led government immediately following the elections are almost nil. Labor's only chance for capturing center stage in the future is a readiness to join a unity government on better terms and with a more realistic influence on the main issues.

I believe that Sharon sincerely wants a coalition with Labor to avoid becoming a captive of the extreme right. He must surely understand by now the need for compromise and hard decisions on all fronts. Most Laborites preferred Mitzna as their leader because of the failure of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shimon Peres to seriously influence Sharon's government. They wanted Mitzna not to lead them back into the opposition wilderness but to be a stronger influence in a true unity government until the time when voters are convinced that he is fit to become prime minister.

If he refuses to join such a government, Labor will not give him a second chance.