Where You Stand Is Where You Sit

Labor looks like a dove that has undergone a metamorphosis of convenience: It is giving unanimous backing to Olmert's approach whereby Israel would not negotiate with kidnapped Gilad Shalit's abductors .

In recent years it was Gideon Ezra who provided the most effective example of the phenomenon: Shortly after he was appointed a minister in Ariel Sharon's government (in 2003), he supported the prime minister's recommendation to release Palestinian prisoners. This was a surprising stance, in view of Ezra's previous opinions on this matter. The change in his approach was so sweeping that he even agreed to release prisoners with blood on their hands if they had already served the greater part of their prison sentence and had declared their support for an agreement with Israel. Thus the new minister proved the validity of the well-known diagnosis: Where you stand is where you sit.

Ezra's behavior comes to mind these days at the sight of the conduct of the Labor Party and Meretz in the crisis of the abduction of Gilad Shalit. The Labor Party looks like a dove that has undergone a metamorphosis of convenience: It is giving unanimous backing to the approach determined by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whereby there will be no negotiations at all with the soldier's abductors or even with elements in Hamas who might be able to influence his fate.

Olmert's stance derives from his assessment that an Israeli blink in these circumstances will drag after it endless extortion attempts that will completely topple the country's deterrent ability.

Olmert has chosen to take a stance that negates any bargaining over the abducted soldier and aims at demonstrating to the entire Palestinian public, and especially to its leadership, the heavy price they will pay if anything happens to Gilad Shalit. Whether the line that Olmert has taken is both just and wise, or only just, it is astonishing to see that no one in the government or the coalition is disagreeing with it. Even the more cooing doves in the Labor Party are keeping their beaks shut tight.

The coalition in all its factions and members is adopting the prime minister's initial assumption that the Hamas regime in the Palestinian Authority is completely beyond the pale, that its heads must pay with their lives if the abducted soldier is harmed by his captors and that it is correct to view the abduction as a means of compelling the Palestinians, by force of arms, to stop the firing of Qassam rockets and the attacks on the Israeli settlements and Israel Defense Forces positions that surround the Gaza Strip.

Only four months ago the Labor Party appealed to the leftist public and begged it to vote Labor in the elections, on the grounds that it is better to strengthen its power in the Knesset as a fairly large party than to increase the representation of little Meretz. Labor argued that under the leadership of Amir Peretz (now defense minister), with definite doves like Ophir Pines (now minister of science, technology, culture and sport), MKs Ami Ayalon and Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) is the faithful emissary of the leftist camp no less than the party of MKs Yossi Beilin, Zahava Gal-On and Ran Cohen. The results have proven that the success of the campaign was quite limited: Labor remained a middle-sized party and Meretz remained a party in which all the Knesset members fit comfortably into a modest family car, but this campaign line at least posed a dilemma to voters on the left and stopped, at least, the erosion of labor's strength.

The time of testing has come along with the abduction of the soldier and is showing that there is indeed a difference in temperament, worldview and political approach between Labor and Meretz: The former is talking and acting in the current crisis like Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, whereas the latter is speaking out in a different voice, unique in the Zionist political camp. Unlike the Labor ministers and Knesset members, who are reminiscent of a chorus declaiming the words penned by the prime minister, the heads of Meretz (especially Zahava Gal-On and Ran Cohen) are questioning his doctrine: They are calling for not locking the gate to dialogue with Hamas, and they are expressing reservations about the environmental punishment meted out to the inhabitants of Gaza. In short, at least some of the leaders of Meretz are challenging the government's moves in the abduction crisis and are offering the public food for thought, if not a real alternative, to the government's conduct. However, the question remains: Would Meretz be questioning the government's line of action if it were part of the coalition?