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Even opponents of the Labor party are having a hard time explaining the party's endless dawdling in the surveys. But perhaps it has something to do with the almost masochist jeering and taunting of Amram Mitzna by those people who should be rallying around him and his ideas - if not enthusiastically, then at least by default.

Because even if separation from the Palestinians, building a fence and trying to jump-start political negotiations are presented - in these nihilistic times - as foolish, myopic, defeatist and hopeless, these are the only creative ideas around. Certainly they are more creative than the idea of a "showdown," which has proved its worthlessness and sterility in every sphere, from security and strategic defense, to the economy and national morale.

What do Prime Minister Sharon and Defense Minister Mofaz have to offer today, apart from continuing to wave around the banner of "expelling Arafat" and "preparing for the war on Iraq" - those fetishistic rituals which have become their political raison d'etre, if not the spice of life? What will fill our (and their) days if Arafat is expelled or - bite your tongue! - there is no war on Iraq?

And on top of that, Mitzna's proposals are not fanciful, or even particularly exotic. The fact of the matter is that they even enjoy closet-consensus: Most of the public secretly accepts them. If they were put forward by Sharon, they would win wall-to-wall support.

But when this alternative is presented as embarrassing, silly and spaced-out, even by those who support it, it's not just a matter of timing. It has to do with the victory of the intimidation, inertia, fatalism and lack of compassion preached by Ariel Sharon, with a little help from his spin doctors.

Part of the problem is that people - also on the left - are focusing on Mitzna's personality rather than on his philosophy and vision. The fact that Mitzna is almost the opposite of Sharon, in temperament, personality and the way he does things, has actually become an obstacle in the eyes of his potential supporters. Admiration for craftiness and brutality is a contagious disease and they've caught it, too - especially senior members of the party, like Ephraim Sneh, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Dalia Itzik, who've been staring goggle-eyed at Ariel Sharon for the past two years and admitted more than once to being smitten with this cynical rancher and his crooked ways.

Like passengers in a sinking life-boat, mocking and criticizing the captain's beard as he thrashes around, still trying to keep them afloat, the members of the Labor Party turn their noses up at Mitzna's performance and looks: too cool, too restrained, too straightforward, too idealistic, too clear, too rational, too honest, too thin. To put it in a nutshell, not the least bit like Sharon.

So what if the Labor bigwigs are supposed to support him and his policies, and oppose Sharon with all their might? So what if they are the ones to blame for the miserable state of the party, for sitting so long in Sharon's government? As far as they're concerned, the real question, even now, is: What's better? To survive as castaways with a bundle of principles, eking out a miserly existence under a demanding captain with a personality as dry as a cracker, or to plunge to the depths with a plump, cynical hedonist who at least cracks jokes, pulls out the munchies and treats you nicely on the way down?

Their preference, and apparently, that of most of the public, is clear. Like Julius Caesar, they say: "Let me have men that are fat; sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o'nights." Or at least one man like that.

This dilemma was clearly reflected in their faces this week, at the absurd forum in which the heads of Labor repeated, like drunken parrots, the "either/or" formula that Mitzna has somehow managed to force on them: "It's either Sharon - or us!" intoned Dalia Itzik, as if the devil were standing over her. "It's us - or them!" mumbled Matan Vilnai in a hypnotic daze. "It's our policy - or theirs!" muttered Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, like a comatose zombie. But has the word "or" ever been spoken so tentatively, so falsely, so strained, so noncommittally? After all, don't we know that the only real "or" that this opportunistic gang has any interest in, is being appointed minister of commerce, "or" minister of defense, "or" ambassador to London?

Only Amram Mitzna meant, and continues to mean, every word and every "or" he utters. From this standpoint, we have never seen a party leader in these parts - at least not since Benny Begin became head of the National Unity party - so sincere, honest, articulate and rooted in his party ideology, and hence, so alone.

Mitzna has not "taken off in the surveys" or enjoyed the gung-ho support of his own party, not because he is not suitable, talented or eloquent, but for the very opposite reason: Because he is brave, says things clearly and is more solidly identified with the spirit of his party than all the meek conformers around him. Maybe he is too clear and too articulate in this sea of confusion, obtuseness and stupefaction. It will be sad if, like Benny Begin, he finds that he has become a horse without a rider.