One Last Chance

Labor has reached a historic crossroads. It is being offered one last chance to win back the public's faith in its ability to lead. This is an opportunity it dare not pass up.

It's true that Israelis love to complain, but when you look at what the Qassams are doing to Sderot and how the "strongest country in the Middle East" is incapable of lifting a finger, today's cries of despair are justified. Nasrallah is poking fun at our defense minister and Hezbollah is arming itself with long-range missiles. One day, without warning or provocation, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion International Airport will find themselves under surprise attack, thanks to the brilliance of the Second Lebanon War and the people who planned it.

All the talk about peace and the promises of disengagement and convergence have become empty rhetoric. When the father of kidnapped soldier Ehud Goldwasser claims there is no leader and no leadership in Israel, he is expressing a fact everyone knows to be true. For Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz, the fathers of this failure, the time is up.

Shining like a beacon of hope in the gloom of a cold, dark night is May 28, the day set for the Labor Party primaries. If Labor can seize the moment, it will be provided with an irreplaceable opportunity to return to the political arena as the vigorous, dynamic and influential party it was during its heyday. Here is Labor's chance to bring about Israel's political upheaval No. 2.

The trouble is that Labor, as Benjamin Ben-Eliezer put it, is a party with suicidal tendencies. Mainly, it is a party that devours its leaders. Now it has honed its technique and is trying to wipe out its top contender, the one with the political and military experience, before he gets elected. The party is slinging mud at Ehud Barak, who is running for Labor chairman, from every possible direction, regardless of the fact that right now, he is the best man for the job.

It is hard to understand where Peretz, one of the architects of the failed war, gets the nerve to think he will win. The other candidates who consider themselves to be worthy don't seem to get it either: What Israel needs now is an experienced leader, someone who can handle this current state of neither war nor peace, and see to it that - whatever happens - we come out of this holding the upper hand.

Both in the north and the south, war could break out at the drop of a pin. Some compare the dismissive attitude toward Assad Bashar to the way Anwar Sadat was pooh-poohed before the Yom Kippur War. Sadat talked about how that year would be a decisive one and how he was willing to sacrifice a million soldiers to liberate the occupied lands. Yet, at the same time, he made peace overtures. Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan weren't buying any of it - not the threats of war nor the offers of peace. On both counts, Sadat surprised us.

Ophir Pines-Paz is a nice young man, but he doesn't have the necessary defense experience; Peretz will get a back-burner job in the best of cases; Ami Ayalon and Danny Yatom are also good people, but neither of them is a marathon runner capable of leading the country for long distances, toward peace and security. Altogether, Labor's method of infusing the party with new blood over the past few years has been strange. Amram Mitzna was brought in, and then Peretz - nice, fresh faces, but too left-wing for the Israeli political map, which tilts toward the center with a tendency to tip over into the far right.

In the primaries, Labor should be electing an authoritative, experienced leader with the drive to get into a position of power and become a component of the next government. As somebody said, and I'm not saying who, if Ayalon wins, the voter will get a triple whammy - Yossi Beilin's political views, Mitzna's inexperience and Barak's nastiness.

Barak is seeking to revive Labor's appetite for power. It was only thanks to Yitzhak Rabin and Barak that the party got back into government after the political reversal of 1977. Both came from the center of the political map, both had a defense background and both were perceived by the public as putting the good of the country before political wheeling and dealing. Both did what they believed was right, without bowing to lobbies.

Barak's chief opponent, Ayalon, for example, will never be able to lead Labor to power because he bears the stain of a loony virtual peace accord with Palestinian moderate Sari Nusseibeh. The right will wipe the floor with him. After Olmert is kicked out, as expected, the public will be looking for a leader it can trust. A government led by Barak in a coalition with Tzipi Livni and Dan Meridor, for example, is more likely to win the confidence of the public.

Labor has reached a historic crossroads. It is being offered one last chance to win back the public's faith in its ability to lead. This is an opportunity it dare not pass up.