Labors too busy battling itself to work on winning

The old warhorse whose political obituary has been written several times appears headed to an easy re-election after a brief struggle with some true irony. The man who has been (correctly) accusing Yasser Arafat of corruption and not doing enough to stop terrorism found himself on the receiving end of the same charges at home.

But polls indicate he has weathered the storm, thanks to an opposition Labor Party that is mired in internecine warfare and sheer ineptitude.

Sharon has carefully tended to relations with Washington, avoiding saying yes to American peace proposals even when he really means no, and it has paid off. The Bush administration has tacitly endorsed him, happy to avoid conflicts with domestic constituencies and to have Sharon quietly cooperating with U.S. efforts in Iraq.

On the right and left, many Israeli politicians expect an American victory in Iraq will bring about a tidal wave of change in the region.

The right is anticipating it will ignite a chain reaction of regime change in the Arab world, not least among Palestinians, that will keep them too preoccupied with domestic problems to push for new peace negotiations. They're also hoping that once Saddam is out of the way, President Bush will lose interest in pushing the plan for Palestinian statehood and turn his attention homeward, focusing on his 2004 re-election campaign.

Labor has an opposite view, but it is too busy battling itself to mount much of a campaign against Sharon. Aside from its standard bearer, Amram Mitzna, most Labor bigwigs appear anxious to accept their coming defeat and scramble for Cabinet posts and official Volvos in a new Sharon government.

In a form of pre-emptive surrender, some in Labor already have launched a dump Mitzna campaign before the first vote is even cast.

There's even a movement to replace Mitzna at the top of the ticket with Shimon Peres because recent polls show Labor could do much better that way. The trouble is that in many past elections Peres has often led in opinion polls, but he has never won an election.

With Labor virtually writing this election off, party insiders have begun focusing on the first one of what they hope will be the post-Saddam era. At that point, they say, Israel can expect "overwhelming international pressure" to reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.

A party analyst who knows the American scene intimately and has worked with all the recent Labor prime ministers, said party leaders like Shimon Peres and Benjamin Ben Eliezer allowed themselves to be "co-opted by Sharon" while serving in his unity government and unable or unwilling to "substantively influence policy in any meaningful way."

Many in the party, particularly on the left, feel Labor's failure to clearly distinguish itself from Likud can be remedied only by leading the opposition and presenting Israelis a clear alternative on critical peace and security issues, not by joining another Sharon-led coalition and becoming Likud Lite.

Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, has criticized Sharon for having "no policy which will lead to either a vigorous war on terror or a diplomatic solution." Labor says the answer is doing what Sharon rejects — ending the occupation and removing the settlements.

Polls show most Israelis agree with Labor, but they are not blaming Sharon for the present problems and they're not sure Labor is tough enough for the job. There is an axiom in Israeli politics that says voters like Labor's policies but want Likud to handle the negotiations.

Being in the opposition will give Labor an opportunity to articulate its own policies, said the analyst. "Israel cannot survive the demographic, security and socioeconomic threats we are facing without withdrawing from the territories," he wrote.

Nothing much will happen without U.S. leadership, which is on hold until Saddam is taken care of. But after that, Israel can anticipate — and should not be afraid of — "overwhelming international pressure."

The region will be at a historic crossroads, and if Israel is "not too bloodied" by the Iraqis, it can expect to be pressed to "take advantage of the political horizon presented us in the war's aftermath."

That will be in the form of a proposal much like the "Road Map" drafted by the United States, Europeans, Russians and the United Nations last year and the Clinton proposal of 2000.

A likely Labor strategy would be to embrace the proposals, which it expects Likud to reject, and make that the basis for calling for new elections.

"We will vote then for what will appear to be a realistic chance to achieve peace and security while guaranteeing the future of a Jewish majority democratic country in this region," the analyst wrote to colleagues and party supporters. "Labor will win."

That will pose a big dilemma for American Jews, who have been conditioned to react strongly against any U.S. pressure on Israel, and it will inflame the Christian right, a key supporter of Israel and a core element of Bush's political base.

Outright pressure on Israel is politically risky for any administration — just ask Bush's father — and there is a lobby network ready to pounce at the first sign of coercion. American Jewish activists are frequently unable to cope with such subtleties or feel it is their duty to be more Zionist than the Israeli government.

Even if this administration can claim the victorious removal of Saddam and Palestinians replace Arafat, Bush will be reluctant to provoke a major confrontation with Israel before the 2004 elections.

Both sides in the Israeli political wars are basing their strategies on wishful thinking. What happens if Saddam is not deposed? Of if he is — but other despots in the region just tighten their grip on power?

In that case, Israel will be exactly where it is now — facing continued terrorism, rising international condemnation and a lack of any coherent strategy by any of its leaders.