The Two Yossis

Nobody expected Yossi Beilin, the cold fish of Israeli politics, to shed a tear or show an inkling of emotion when he announced he was dropping out of the Meretz leadership race. Not only did Beilin provide the goods, but he even gave the sense that he felt relief. Had he run and been victorious - not that that would have happened - what would he have done with the victory? What, after all, did he do with the last victory? Very little. Three of the party's five sitting MKs decided to compete against him, including Haim Oron, who will probably become Beilin's successor. Not quite a vote of confidence in their chairman.

Beilin decided to spare himself the humiliation and get out in time. He leaves the man (or woman) who follows him a niche party with few Knesset seats; a sympathetic and untarnished party whose main occupation in recent years has been to say "We told you so" and, from its place in the backbenches, to support governments allegedly carrying out its agenda.

His exit as Meretz chairman seems like the beginning of his retirement from politics. Though we have learned not to eulogize politicians too soon, one can estimate that the peak of Beilin's political career is behind him. He was cabinet secretary; had the ears of three prime ministers; was the most influential Israeli deputy foreign minister ever; a justice minister and cabinet member. Even if he managed to lay down his own independent agenda over the next few months and years, it will not be the same.

Beilin's departure from the Meretz leadership symbolizes the end of its era of diplomacy, which characterized the leadership of Beilin and his predecessor, Yossi Sarid. Whoever it is that is elected come March 18, will bring with him or her a fresh spirit to a party struggling for its survival. Oron and Ran Cohen are associated with social issues and Zahava Gal-On with civil and human rights. Perhaps it's for the best: The diplomatic agenda did not bring in the votes. On the contrary, it clipped its wings.

Beilin's deal of mutual support with Oron, which brought the former victory in the March 2004 elections, will probably do the same for Oron this coming March and, for a second time, prevent Ran Cohen from winning.

Two personas are manifested in Beilin: He's a failed politician, booted from the Labor Party after not being elected on its Knesset list in 2003. But he's also a brilliant statesman, who broke new ground and penned a number of initiatives, including the Oslo Accords. Such are the two sides of Doctor Yossi and Mister Beilin.