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For years the followers of Labor's former minister Yossi Beilin, apparently not against his will, preached against the infiltration of "generals" to senior positions in Israeli politics in general, and in the Labor Party in particular. Beilin's patron, former foreign minister Shimon Peres, made sure to promise that if he won the elections he would give the Defense Ministry to a former major general or lieutenant general (Yigal Allon in 1977; Haim Bar-Lev, who was sacrificed in favor of Yitzhak Rabin in 1981; Rabin in 1984); but after the assassination of Rabin, when he came of age, Beilin was presented as the civilian positive of the military negative.

Everything bad in the government stemmed from the generals, claimed the Beilinites convincingly, but just when they had finished convincing everyone, Beilin came and announced his support for former major general Amram Mitzna for prime minister. That is a reason for hope: A person who wants to make amends for originally being a general can do so, and all he has to do is to accept Beilinite opinions.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak will not admit it - he cannot be pressured, as we remember, and all his decisions are made purely on the basis of his intelligence - but the threat embodied in Beilin pushed him into the greatest mistakes of his government. These mistakes include the decision not to buy the survival of the government at the cost of bringing in Likud MKs Ariel Sharon and Silvan Shalom (a sad move, but less sad than Sharon's later victory in the contest with Barak for prime minister), the decision to establish the Or Commission [to investigate the killing of Israeli Arabs by the police in October 2000], and the decision to retreat under fire to the Taba talks. Now the Beilin branch of Labor hopes to stand the good general Mitzna against the bad general Sharon.

For this purpose, Mitzna is described as a gentle and refined army man, whose sterling qualities require no proof - he is one of the only ones in the top echelons of the Israel Defense Forces who dared to demand that Sharon quit after the massacre in Sabra and Chatila. In fact, at the time, and not only then, Mitzna displayed an indulged personality, a choosy conscience and surprising judgment. Instead of taking his protest all the way, by leaving the army, he retracted and apologized. He remained silent and did not call for the ousting of the person who in the Kahan Commission report [which investigated the events of Sabra and Chatila] was criticized just as harshly as Sharon, Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, who advanced to senior positions under his sponsorship (commander of Division 63). His professional and ethical authority was undermined when he granted himself - but not his soldiers - a release from the hardships of the Central Command, and left for America, after a year and a half of intifada.

When he returned to the general staff, to head the Planning and Policy Directorate, he did not excel in a talent for political analysis, especially in preparing the steps leading to the Madrid Conference. Five generals have served as chiefs of the Planning and Policy Directorate during the past decade, the most successful of them being Uzi Dayan, Shlomo Yanai and Giora Eiland. Mitzna was one of the two who were not impressive, along with Shaul Mofaz. After less than two years, he was discharged from the army and moved to Haifa.

The next Knesset will have a hard time serving out its term. It will be born in circumstances that will become outdated within months: American support of Israel in light of Palestinian refusal will be replaced by pressure to make progress toward a demilitarized Palestinian state within temporary borders. Such a government headed by Sharon needs a central partner; that is why he should hope that the Labor Party doesn't disintegrate completely, and that the Beilin faction will not be leading it. Even if the combination of Likud-Labor-Shinui is enough to respond to the demands of the Bush administration, just as the combination of Likud-Labor-Democratic Movement for Change granted the late prime minister Menachem Begin a majority for approving the peace with Egypt - the elections will be moved up.

For this reason, the short and stormy period of the next Knesset must be used by the leadership of the Labor Party, which will be chosen today - and which, according to the party constitution, will have to be chosen again by January 2004, after losing to Sharon - to prepare for the next time, for the real battle to determine the future character of Israel. Spoiled and alienated people will find it difficult to bear that burden.