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In a despairing moment, an Amram Mitzna advisor agreed it might have been a mistake to turn the election race into a getting-to-know-you campaign for Labor's anonymous candidate. It turns out, he said, that the more the voters were exposed to Mitzna, the more support for Labor slumped.

"When you have to sell an uninspiring, non-charismatic candidate," he said with a sigh, "it's best to hide him as much as possible behind an air of mystery and highlight the issues that are bothering the public."

Most key professional players in the campaign agree it was a mistake to make Mitzna the focus - but two other errors compete for the unhappy title of worst campaign mistakes. First there was the absolute, rather than conditional, rejection of a unity government, and second, calling Sharon the "Godfather."

Dr. Carlo Stranger, a clinical psychologist and one of the outside advisors brought into the campaign, says expectations that a successful campaign could bring a victory were never realistic. The basic data the pollsters provided showed that if everyone who gave even a moment's thought to voting for Labor were to actually put a Labor slip in the ballot box, Labor would still be left with no more than 26-27 Knesset seats. That basic fact has not changed since the start of the campaign.

"From an early stage it became clear our problem was where to find the voters," says the psychiatrist. "Even in terms of the major blocs, it quickly became evident that there was no chance of moving more than half a seat worth of voters from the right. The despair deepened when the pollsters demonstrated that the campaign was buying into Mitzna's ideas - 51 to 68 percent of the public said they supported his proposals."

The unilateral disengagement plan became such a hit that even the Yesha Council announced it was withdrawing its objections to a separation fence. "Nonetheless, no poll showed us getting past the 22 seat level. People want Sharon with Mitzna's plan. Period."

Stranger calls the slide down to 18-19 seats "Labor's own work" and cites the vocal disputes between party leaders about joining the unity government after the elections. That portrayed Mitzna as a weak politician, unable to control his own household. A poll taken after Sharon's truncated press conference about the loan scandal made things even worse for Labor.

It showed that while 60 percent of Likud voters didn't accept Sharon's explanations about the Cyril Kern affair, only 8 percent cared. In other words, the people want Mitzna's plan, are critical of the prime minister's behavior - and still vote Likud.

"You only have one father, even if he's suspected of theft. In fact, that's when you have to stand by him," said Stranger. "The sense of despair and chaos was monstrous. We had people in focus groups talking about a snowball running out of control, about a lack of leadership and direction. But if you don't see a way out of the situation, you have nothing left except your identity. The hungry woman from Kikar Hamedina's protest for bread camp won't vote for Sharon because of his security policies, let alone his economic `successes.' She's doing it because she's loyal to `family.'"

The campaign strategists came to the gloomy conclusion that to persuade the patients - the voters - to vote Labor, in effect they had to be stripped of their identity as part of the family. "Avigdor Lieberman understood right away that to be a Likudnik is like belonging to the Cohen family," says Stranger. "So, instead of proposing Likudniks turn their back on their identity, he adopted the slogan, `a real Likudnik votes National Union.'"

If that's true, how did Labor win elections twice in the last decade? Stranger: "That happened because in those cases, Labor was led by people whom Likudniks perceived as relatives, even if they were distant relatives."

The polls and focus groups taught the advisors that because of the deep disappointment from the Oslo process and the shock of the intifada, Likudniks were not ready to give Labor another chance to be part of the family.

But if that wasn't enough for generating despair, an examination of Shinui voters revealed that Labor offers no sense of identity to the youthful secular, liberal, dovish, Western tribe, either. They regard Labor as an odd mixture of middle class and upper middle class people grafted on to a socialist past, alongside elderly kibbutzniks and pensioners loyal to historic Mapai.

"That large tribe [of Shinui voters] feels it's better represented by Shinui and Meretz," says Stanger. He has a clear conclusion: "If Labor doesn't come up with an original, authentic voice of its own, the public that still identifies with it will shrink further and it will continue to lose strength."

Fatal combination

If Benjamin Ben-Eliezer had not lent a hand for 20 months to operations like the one the IDF conducted Saturday night in Gaza, Labor could have provided the voters with up to date data on the price Israelis paid with their blood for Sharon's "military successes."

After all, it was Sharon who invented the use of terror victims to score propaganda points, all the way back to his "who's in favor of defeating terror" speech against Yitzhak Shamir at a Likud convention in the 1980s.

The data would show the public the connection between halts and progress in the peace process - even if there are only tiny steps forward - and the number of attacks. For example, from the start of Netanyahu's term, in June 1996, and until the intifada began in October 2000 during Barak's term, there were four attacks with victims inside the Green Line, with 35 killed. By comparison, during Sharon's term, until last November, there were 76 attacks inside the Green Line, with 415 killed.

Until three months ago Shimon Peres (Number 3 on Labor's list) was a man who was disgusted by any discussion of a possible direct connection between the timing of many IDF raids into the territories that caused casualties among Palestinian civilians, and initiatives to put an end to the violence. If not for that fact, Labor could have argued this week that it is no accident that the Gaza operation took part at the height of efforts in Cairo to reach a cease-fire by all the Palestinian factions.

But Peres and Ben-Eliezer were in the government and in the security cabinet, and even in the "kitchenette" on July 31, 2001, when the IDF got the green light to assassinate two Hamas leaders in Nablus - and by the way killed two children. That happened at the end of two absolutely quiet months inside Israel, and nine days before the multi-victim attack in the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem.

Ben-Eliezer and Peres were senior partners in responsibility for the assassination of Mahmud Abu Hanoud on November 23, 2001, which took place - by coincidence, of course - when the Fatah and Hamas were close to an agreement on an end to attacks inside Israel, and a few days before the visit of U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni.

Labor also failed in its stated purpose in government of "moderating Sharon" on July 22, 2002, when 15 Palestinian civilians, including children, paid with their lives for being neighbors of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh. Then, too - and how ruthless fate can be - the IDF, and the European Union's envoy had just reported to the government about a breakthrough toward a statement by the Fatah and possibly Hamas, for a general cease-fire against Israeli civilians.

The policies in the territories are a joint product of the political and military echelons. Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and most of the members of the general staff have adopted the view that there is no chance for any political deal with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future.

Most are vehemently opposed to a unilateral withdrawal and don't appear to have any problem with lawless settlers. Mitzna's expected loss saves him from a most difficult mission - a full-frontal clash between the government and the army, the likes of which have not been seen here since soldier Mitzna called for the resignation of politician Sharon.

Wild and woolly

It's difficult to decide for whom to feel more sympathy. Is it Sharon, who will have to live with a coalition that will do everything it can to strip the mask of respectability off his face? Or should it be Mitzna, who in his first term in the Knesset will have to lead a complex, unruly, wild and woolly opposition.

Even if he manages to keep a grip on Labor veterans like Avrum Burg and Haim Ramon, who so far have been loyal to their tyro leader, it's doubtful that Yossi Sarid, the previous leader of the opposition, will be granting him any days of grace.

Meretz's time in the Rabin and Barak governments gave it a feeling of what it's like sitting in the warm bosom of the consensus. When Labor joined the Sharon government, it pushed Meretz back to being the only Zionist leftist party "outside the camp" in a time of war. With Labor forced to give up its bowl of gruel, and with its tail between its legs, Meretz has no plans to gracefully concede the leadership of the opposition.

While Shinui threatens to turn Labor into the third largest party, the new Social Democratic Party being hatched by Meretz could yet send Labor into fourth place.

While Labor's leaders will be busy licking their wounds and settling scores with one another, their lawful son, Yossi Beilin, will be busy building a confederation based on Meretz, Labor's doves, new immigrants from the left led by Roman Bronfman, and a group of Israeli Arabs fed up with Labor.

Beilin also brought an important dowry to Meretz - his lines of communication with the Palestinian leadership. By the time Mitzna wins their confidence, and Peres wins their forgiveness, Beilin will complete the agreement in principle he's been working on for the last two years with Yasser Abed Rabo and Nabil Sha'ath.

With a draft peace deal in hand - without a right of return - the new SDP will be upgraded from the critics bleachers to onstage performers. Mitzna promises "war until victory," even if it doesn't happen in the current round. But on the way he'll have to overcome the two Yossis of Meretz.

The competition will be crowded for the few headlines the left will get, since judging form the polls it appears that two veteran Arab parliamentarians, Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi, are going to reach the Knesset backed by a large Arab turnout and equipped with certificates of honesty from the Supreme Court.

The publication of the Orr Commission Report about the police and Arab riots of October 2000, new deterioration of the conflict in the territories, tens of thousands more unemployed, and a government insensitive to minorities, threatens to turn the Knesset into a combat zone between Jews and Arabs. If Baruch Marzel from Herut and Hebron gets into the Knesset, the people who will really need the most sympathy will be the Knesset ushers.