As Sharon Provides Neither Peace nor Security, Labor Sees an Opening

After almost a year of bumbling incompetence, the Israeli left seems to be getting its groove back.

Several signs point to a new sense of political vitality in the opposition Labor Party:

There’s a sharp new tone in the left’s criticism of the government’s peace and economic policies.

Labor is discussing a political merger with the One Nation Party of Histadrut labor leader Amir Peretz, creating a stronger oppositionist front.

Newly confident Labor leaders insist that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eventually will have to get back to the Oslo peace process they initiated, or make way for someone who will.

Last weekend, for the first time in years, Labor leaders participated in an anti-government Peace Now demonstration.

In addition, the fact that Sharon is under fire in his own Likud Party gives new hope and energy to his opponents on the left.

The developments come in sharp contrast to the year of confused lethargy that beset Labor after it lost successive elections in 2001 and 2003 by landslides, and to the Palestinian intifada, which made a mockery of Labor’s peace ideology.

Indeed, as part of a Likud-led national unity government for 20 months starting in March 2001, Labor seemed to forfeit what was left of its separate political identity.

The Sharon government’s difficulties with coming to grips with the key issues on Israel’s agenda now are paving the way for Labor’s revival. After more than two and half years in office, Sharon has not been able to turn the economy around or bring the peace and security he promised in his election campaigns. He also has yet to finish the long-awaited security fence.

Analysts speak of a dark mood in the country because of the government’s inability to point to any significant light at the end of the tunnel. Without a peace agreement in sight and with emergency budget cuts threatening to impoverish more Israelis, the opposition is starting to make its presence felt.

To give itself a more compassionate image, Labor is angling for a merger with Peretz’s worker-oriented One Nation. With the charismatic, socially-concerned Peretz back in the fold, Labor leaders hope to make a stronger case against the government’s economic policy — which they depict as enriching the rich and impoverishing the poor — and appeal to a wider electorate.

In a large demonstration on Saturday night, Labor, Meretz and Peace Now leaders focused on the government’s failure to bring peace or security, drawing a direct link between the security situation and the beleaguered economy.

Labor leaders contend that the jury is still out on Oslo, but they say the right-wing thesis of force against the Palestinians hasn’t proved itself either. Labor’s alternative — separation from the Palestinians with or without an agreement, and as soon as possible — seems to be striking a more receptive public chord.

Perhaps, more than anything else, this week’s ceremonies for Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres’ 80th birthday underline the left’s newfound energy. Sunday’s celebration of Peres’ achievements was skillfully used to promote Labor’s agenda and challenge what the party sees as Sharon’s intransigence and delaying tactics.

At the gala evening in Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, former President Clinton drew rapturous applause when he declared that the Oslo peace process had not failed and could still be brought to a successful conclusion.

Indeed, the cheers for Clinton seemed to indicate the abiding strength of the left’s yearning for a revival of the peace process. The birthday party became a powerful celebration of what might have been had Oslo succeeded — and what many on the left think could still be, if only Labor is given another a shot in power.

Turning to Sharon, Peres said, “Peace is closer than you think, and closer than I believe.”

At a seminar at Tel Aviv University on Monday, Peres again used a high-profile occasion to juxtapose the left’s panacea of separation against what it sees as the right’s ineffectual delaying tactics.

Playing for time, Peres said, could prove catastrophic. Instead, he suggested that the government pull out of Gaza unconditionally, as soon as possible.

The test “will be whether you are capable of making a quick decision,” Peres said in remarks addressed to Sharon, who was sitting in the audience. “If you do, we will support you, the nation will support you. We don’t have to be in the government for that.”

On Sunday, Sharon had seemed to suggest casually the possibility of a new national unity government.

“Perhaps we can still work together for peace and security,” he told Peres. But Labor’s Avraham Shochat and Binyamin Ben Eliezer quickly shot down the idea.

Only if Sharon takes the peace process with the Palestinians forward will Labor be interested, they said; the party will not allow itself to be used again as a fig leaf for what they characterize as Sharon’s do-nothing policy.

In making the perceived offer, Sharon was signaling to his present coalition partners — who are threatening to rock the boat over the budget — that he has other options.

Sharon’s real problem, though, is in his own Likud Party, where his position has eroded somewhat in the wake of financial scandals that implicated him and his sons. Already, possible successors — Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmert — are starting to circle, and their sniping as they jockey for position is not helping the government.

All this is starting to hurt Sharon: For the first time in months, there are signs that his popularity is waning.

A mid-September poll in the Ma’ariv newspaper shows satisfaction with Sharon’s performance at 43 percent, down from well over 60 percent a few months ago. Fully 49 percent said they were dissatisfied with Sharon’s performance.

Such results are energizing the opposition, which for the first time in years sees cracks in the right’s previously impregnable position.

Many in Labor believe the scandals may soon force Sharon’s resignation and that any successor will fail, lacking Sharon’s political dexterity in pursuing an ideology that Labor feels is out of sync with reality.

Then, they say, Labor’s leader after Peres — whoever that may be — will have a real chance of becoming prime minister.

If there’s no light yet at the end of Israel’s tunnel, there may at least be for the Labor Party.

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