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Whenever another of the "last of the giants" is eulogized - as with the legendary Abba Eban this week - it is noted with regret that there was a missed opportunity in that the person and what he stood for did not reach the summit of decision-making - that is, did not become prime minister. The finger of blame is pointed at the "political system," which could not rise above its brutal squabbling and did not deign to evacuate the top spot to the wonderful, albeit fastidious, personality: the one who was not cut out for odious "work in the party branches," for the runaround of "attending bar mitzvahs" and for the repulsive "handshaking," not to mention the stench of the "political kitchen cabinets" - those slaughterhouses where all those who enter may as well abandon all hope, unless they are butchers.

It is not surprising that Amram Mitzna's miraculous rise to the chairmanship of the Labor Party is also being accompanied by the general head-shaking that stands for mockery and compassion, since everyone agrees (with a certain admiration for the wolves and a certain scorn for the innocent lamb) that "he'll be eaten alive" there, and for breakfast, too. Because there is a general consensus, well-cultivated by the media, that the minimum condition for being a player in Israeli politics is to have a "thick skin," together with a low brow and a thuggish appearance. Raucousness and vulgarity will also be welcomed, not to mention the threshold requirement: "security-oriented right-wingism." A militant approach fused with a crappy character is a winning combination.

The trouble is that this fine division between "bad politics" - half cannibalistic, half gladiatorial - and "good people" of refined sensibility was somewhat spoiled by the late Abba Eban himself. In a previously unpublished interview that the veteran journalist Dov Goldstein made public this week, Eban expressed deep regret that he had not fought properly for his opinions and had not been a candidate for prime minister. He blamed mainly himself and confessed frankly: "I don't have a good word to say in my defense ... I simply didn't have the courage."

This is exactly the Achilles heel of Israeli politics, and even more so since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin: the absence of courage - personal, physical courage - among "the best and the brightest." Those who know best what has to be done and who has to be induced to run and be funded, which rally has to be held and which articulate speech has to be declaimed at meetings of Yisrael Aheret (A Different Israel) or in Rabin Square - but to take the plunge themselves? To expose themselves completely? To give up their privacy and their economic well-being? Maybe even to risk their life? No thanks. Let someone else run: someone who is bolder and has thicker skin. But who (other than Haim Ramon)? Who?

Let us not mince words: Since the Rabin assassination, those who are known as the "leaders of the left" have been scared to death, literally. Rabin was the last major leader who "was not careful of his tongue," as the saying goes, and especially not of his actions, and who called the settlement enterprise and its price by its name, even without reference to the peace process. And look what happened to him. Unfortunately, those who "internalized the murder" were not those who fought him, but mainly those who supported him. Consider the behavior of his supposed "heir and successor," Shimon Peres, the great equivocator, whose toadying to the settlers and the National Religious Party fudged the moment that might perhaps have saved the peace process.

And what of the "near suicidal courage" displayed by Ehud Barak in the form of his concessions at Camp David? Courage indeed, but let us not forget that those concessions, which preceded the bloodbath of the past two years, were made in an atmosphere of hope, trust and broad public support. On top of which, they remained theoretical when all was said and done. It would also be difficult to say that Barak's diligent effort to generate a "right-wing" impression and to expand the settlements took any special courage. After all, it's not a problem to be a courageous "right-winger." It's a lot harder to be a courageous "left-winger."

Even in normal times and in normal countries, becoming a candidate for the leadership takes personal daring and entails exposure and tremendous self-sacrifice. How many of us are capable of that? Especially in a period like the present one, in a country like this one, in an atmosphere of this kind, and with an ideological platform like that. The personal courage of Amram Mitzna shines all the more brightly here, even without mentioning his political skills. This is in itself exemplary behavior, and it would appear to be at his inspiration that the white-collar types who until now have made do with supporting the Beilins or the Ramons are now themselves about to plunge into the party primaries.

"To know what is right and not to do it shows lack of courage," Confucius said. From this point of view, Mitzna's courage so far overrides that of all the knights of escalation, inertia, stagnation, survival and manipulation: those who don't know what to do but are there anyway; or those who know very well what has to be done, but refrain from doing it because they are afraid.

Many wonder whether "it be naivete, or foolishness," as the poet said. Despite the atmosphere, the style, the deja vu and even the Jesuit appearance of the man, let us hope that the Labor Party this week chose a leader, not another martyr.