Israels left gets its groove back

jerusalem | After almost a year of bumbling incompetence, the Israeli left seems to be getting its groove back.

Several signs point to a new sense of political vitality in the opposition Labor Party:

n There’s a sharp new tone in the left’s criticism of the government’s peace and economic policies.

n Labor is discussing a political merger with the One Nation Party of Histadrut labor leader Amir Peretz, creating a stronger oppositionist front.

n Newly confident Labor leaders insist that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eventually will have to get back to the Oslo peace process they initiated, or make way for someone who will.

n Last weekend, for the first time in years, Labor leaders participated in an anti-government Peace Now demonstration.

In addition, the fact that Sharon is under fire in his own Likud Party gives new hope and energy to his opponents on the left.

Analysts speak of a dark mood in the country because of the government’s inability to point to any significant light at the end of the tunnel. Without a peace agreement in sight and with emergency budget cuts threatening to impoverish more Israelis, the opposition is starting to make its presence felt.

To give itself a more compassionate image, Labor is angling for a merger with Peretz’s worker-oriented One Nation. With the charismatic, socially concerned Peretz back in the fold, Labor leaders hope to make a stronger case against the government’s economic policy — which they depict as enriching the rich and impoverishing the poor — and appeal to a wider electorate.

In a large demonstration on Sept. 20, Labor, Meretz and Peace Now leaders focused on the government’s failure to bring peace or security, drawing a direct link between the security situation and the beleaguered economy.

Labor leaders contend that the jury is still out on Oslo, but they say the right-wing thesis of force against the Palestinians hasn’t proved itself either. Labor’s alternative — separation from the Palestinians with or without an agreement, and as soon as possible — seems to be striking a more receptive public chord.

Perhaps, more than anything else, this week’s ceremonies for Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres’ 80th birthday underline the left’s newfound energy. Sunday’s celebration of Peres’ achievements was skillfully used to promote Labor’s agenda and challenge what the party sees as Sharon’s intransigence and delaying tactics.

At the gala evening in Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, former President Clinton drew rapturous applause when he declared that the Oslo peace process had not failed and could still be brought to a successful conclusion.

Indeed, the cheers for Clinton seemed to indicate the abiding strength of the left’s yearning for a revival of the peace process. The birthday party became a powerful celebration of what might have been had Oslo succeeded — and what many on the left think could still be, if only Labor is given another a shot in power.

Turning to Sharon, Peres said, “Peace is closer than you think, and closer than Ibelieve.”

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.