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You gotta love Jumes. You can disagree with him and you can get mad him, but in the end, you have to have great warmth for him. In the age of Lieberman's nationalism and Eyal Arad's spin, Meretz chair Haim Oron is like an antibody. Even when he goofs, he goofs with his heart in the right place.

If any two numbers reveal just how awful this election is, it's these: Lieberman 20, Meretz five. The Lieberman-Meretz gap raises serious questions about the future and the present of the state of Israel. From his Tel Aviv campaign headquarters, Jumes is still fighting to change both.

Why Meretz? For half their lives, half of Haaretz's readers have been voting Meretz and nothing good has come of it.

Meretz is a kind of start-up. It tosses out ideas that catch on later and other people implement them. But I don't accept that division of labor any more. It's not okay with me that there is an incubator for ideas in one place and they sprout somewhere else. There should be one political entity that represents the social-democratic and peace positions. And that entity is Meretz.

But Meretz isn't having an easy time in this election. Barak and Livni are gnawing at your position from one side, Hadash is chewing on the other. Let's start with Labor chair Ehud Barak. Why not Barak?

Barak is running in 2009 as a successful defense minister who rehabilitated the army and conducted an operation in Gaza. He is not running as the leader of the peace camp.

So maybe Kadima chair Tzipi Livni is the leader of the peace camp. She promises a dove with an olive branch. Just open the window and let her in.

Livni saved herself the question of right and left by not going where she has to decide if she is right or left. She hasn't gotten to dividing Jerusalem and hasn't gotten to resolving the refugee problem. She might have a clearer picture in her own mind. Livni talks about the courage to tell the public the truth. And I say: 'Tzipi, with all due respect to your courage, the question is what you tell Palestinians behind closed doors about Jerusalem.' I don't know what she says. She isn't where Bibi is but she hasn't even gotten to the places that Olmert has. I think both she and Barak make comments from the hazy center that blur the truth. That haze harms the foundations of democracy. It makes political parties into unions of interested parties. It makes the public fed-up with politics because people figure politicians don't say what they really think.

Then Hadash. Dov Khenin says what he really thinks. He is clearer and sharper than Meretz. He has a kind of charisma.

Black-and-white positions look sharp, but reality is not black-and-white. I oppose the injustices that took place in Gaza but I do not accept that Israel doesn't have the right to self-defense. But the underlying conflict between Meretz and Hadash is more substantial. I am a Zionist. I see Israel as a Jewish state that must be democratic and must be for all its citizens. Anyone who says there is tension here is right. It is the tension we live with here. Khenin releases himself from that tension by defining himself as the non-Zionist left. I believe that dealing with the complexities of life in Israel is more moral than disengaging.

Let's admit the truth, Jumes. The warfare in Gaza hurt Meretz twice. On the one hand it brought Labor back into the game and on the other it boosted Hadash. You guys look hesitant.

There is no way a left-wing party like ours doesn't come out of war bruised. There was an option of calling the war right and just, and anything done in it was good. There was an option to say that Israel doesn't have the right of response even after 60, 80, 100 rocket strikes. I think both options are oversimplified. So Meretz took the position that a focused military action against Hamas was justified, but it is not okay to cross lines in the sand. And in this war there were lines in the sand.

Your sons fought in an operation that some of your voters believe was a war crime.

I told you, I live in the tension between poles. One the one hand is the need to remove the threat, but on the other there were tractors that demolished Gaza neighborhoods in the last days of the ground operation. I do not accept that. I believe there is a line that we cannot cross if we want to remain who we are.

Do you still believe in peace? Has the word "peace" been erased from your campaign?

Neither the word nor belief in peace have been erased. The lack of peace and the continued occupation are the greatest dangers to the future of Israel.

Is the two-state solution viable? Can it still be implemented?

The two-state solution is on its last legs. That is why this election is so important. If we do not quickly implement the partition into two states, that solution will evaporate and Zionism will be stuck its worst crisis ever. This could turn into a bad cross between Rhodesian apartheid and Somalian bloodshed.

That bad?

Let me tell you a story. A few days after Sari Nusseibeh retracted his position on two states, I went into Ehud Olmert's office and told him that he should take the report of Nusseibeh's comment like he would take the news that an Arab state has a nuclear bomb.

For decades I have fought for peace. In Peace Now, in Mapai and in Meretz. The two-state solution is the only solution. And I live in fear today. I see the light fading. Why did my parents come here? To what have I devoted my life? For what am I here? For a Jewish and democratic state. And if there is no Jewish and democratic state, what am I left with?

If the situation is so dramatic, maybe it's better not to vote for a small party like Meretz.

Not true. There is no one else like Meretz now. We are the only leftist Zionist alternative that believes in peace, human rights and social democracy.

Some say Amos Oz has become your guru. You are the Eli Yishai of Meretz and Oz is your Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Amos and I have a very close relationship. We do and our families do. But there is no spiritual leader here. There is no authority. We are attentive, not authoritative.

Would you join a unity government with Netanyahu?

We won't sit in a government with Netanyahu as prime minister.

And a unity government with Livni?

If it is possible to create a center-left government we would be a substantial factor. If it is a unity government of mutual paralysis, we would rather serve the public from the opposition bench. Against the rise of the right and the Israeli racism of Lieberman, Meretz will provide an ideological and political platform that will become an alternative.