Thursday, 22 December (96 days to election day)

Scratch most any politician and there it is, right behind the sound bites and the smiles on command: the death wish.

It comes in many forms. There is the jovial variety, as Ariel Sharon this year marked the fortieth anniversary of one of history's least effective diets.

There is the earnest if weak-fleshed preacher variety, of which Bill Clinton should be example enough.

There is the irascible, in-your-face death wish of the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who can resist no opportunity to fall for traps into which they can see long before they drop.

And then there is the permanent death wish of the Israeli left, a curse nearly biblical in its potency, resilience, and ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Take the current version. There are sneaky notes of racism in longtime Laborites' carping at Amir Peretz as a demagogue.

The notes are much less sneaky when the traditional arrogance of the left - the death wish in its most concentrated form - takes oblique but unmistakable aim at Peretz' book-learning and command of English.

But none of these compares to the albatross that graces the neck of Meretz, and which is pulling it down week by despairing week.

Freed, for the present, by the departure of Shimon Peres, the curse of today's left is Peres' estranged protege, Yossi Beilin.

It must be a death wish. How could it be otherwise? It couldn't be coincidence. This should be Beilin's shining moment. This should be Meretz' big break. The Israeli consensus has opted for a major withdrawal. Social issues have come to the fore for the first time in memory.

The result: the brilliant, encyclopedically savvy Beilin's every move only serves to heap a new spadeful of earth onto Meretz' deepening grave.

It's not only his knack of taking an alienating personality and compounding it with an obsessive devotion to his own narrow interests. But that will do for a start.

With Meretz in need of intensive care, Beilin continues to flog the dead horse of all dead horses: the Geneva Initiative.

If there is one proposal for which Israelis have no patience - in some ways even less than for Oslo at this point - it is Geneva.

After the disengagement - which Beilin initially dismissed as a ruse, then denigrated as a ploy to bypass the Palestinians - the Meretz leader managed to misread the political will of the vast majority of Israelis, including the preponderance of the leftist camp.

The trauma of the disengagement, and the willingness of Palestinian gunmen to exploit it by firing Qassam rockets at Sderot and Ashkelon at every post-withdrawal opportunity, created a new Israeli consensus, one in which citizens of all stripes now looked to the Palestinians to make the first move - any move - toward peace.

Geneva was the last thing on Israelis' minds, so Beilin worked twice as hard to promote it. At a November rally marking the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the crowd was asked to lower giant banners so that the thousands in attendance could see. Only the two huge signs for Geneva stayed up.

And Beilin's political instincts are just as ham-handed within the party. Meretz' strength was the edgy counter-culture, which Beilin has all but smothered with his wet-blanket touch.

Ran Cohen, arguably Meretz' greatest political asset - which is to say that he is everything that Beilin is not - has been shoved aside. The Baghdad-born former paratrooper and IDF colonel has been forced to fight for his very political life within the party.

Beilin, meanwhile, plods on. As Meretz takes on water stern and bow, an expensive advertising campaign has burst forth on behalf of his stuffed pet project.

In an astonishing display of peculiar timing, billboards in Israel are advertising Geneva. The tack that the campaign is taking is particularly instructive. It all but acknowledges that Israelis have no stomach for the Initiative.

"You'll be amazed to learn that you, too, are in favor of Geneva," the billboards read.

Even more peculiar are national radio spots for the Initiative. The thrust makes one wonder if they are for Geneva or for Kadima.

"Say, are you in favor of an agreement that leaves settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty?" one commercial begins, going on to cite a clause in the Initiative that provides for this.

If this keeps up, many a Meretz voter may be amazed to find that he, too, has decided to vote for Amir Peretz, or even, horror of horrors, Ariel Sharon.