Fielding a candidate whose proposals to renew negotiations with the Palestinians never caught fire, the Labor Party appears headed for another crushing defeat in an election Tuesday that opinion polls, analysts and Labor supporters agree is likely to return Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his hard-line Likud Party to power in Israel.
Polls show that Labor, which negotiated the 1993 Oslo peace accords that envisioned trading land and a Palestinian state in exchange for peace, will probably capture as few as 18 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament, the Knesset. That would be another slap in the face for the political movement of Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, and its assassinated Nobel Peace laureate, Yitzhak Rabin -- and for Amram Mitzna, the candidate and former general who analysts say staked out positions too conciliatory toward the Palestinians for a country that feels under siege from terrorist bombings.
"Mitzna is talking about peace and dovish ideas, and there is a feeling we were there, and that's not what we're looking for," said Efrat Mack, 31, who works for an organization that tries to promote better relations between Israel's secular and Orthodox Jews. "Mitzna looks like a peace-seeking intellectual, and for us peace has become a dirty word. Sharon represents military security."
The overwhelming sentiment after three months of campaigning seems to be relief. Polls show that Israelis never wanted this early election, which was forced on them when Labor bolted the so-called national unity government led by Sharon last October.
Partly as a result, the campaign has been lackluster and uninspired. There have been no debates between the top candidates, no street demonstrations, few bumper stickers, piddling campaign rallies and little emotion, even though the vote comes after 28 months of clashes in which more than 700 Israelis and 1,800 Palestinians have been killed. The campaign never generated a real discussion about the wisdom of Sharon's tough military response to the Palestinian uprising or the Palestinians' demand for an end to the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupations and establishment of an independent state.
"It's so sad," said Shoshi Magen, a sociology student at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "Elections are supposed to be an expression of democracy -- that things can change, the people's will and all that. And all I feel is that everything will be worse, much worse, before it ever gets better -- if it gets better."
Because of security concerns and fears of terrorist attacks, the Israeli army has closed the West Bank and Gaza Strip until after the election, barring Palestinians from traveling to work in Israel and banning any trade across the borders. Palestinian gunmen opened fire at a polling station in the town of Beit Shean, just north of the West Bank, during the Likud Party primary on Nov. 28, killing six people.
According to three opinion polls published today, Likud is expected to be the big winner, with about 32 seats in the next parliament. That would be an increase of 13 from its current membership. Labor is expected to drop from 25 seats to about 18.
A stridently secularist party called Shinui -- which shot to national prominence this year on vows to strip state subsidies and exemptions from ultra-Orthodox Jews -- would take over third place, with about 15 seats compared with its current six. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party would drop from being the third-largest faction, with 17 members, to fourth, with about 12.
Shinui, led by Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, a 71-year-old maverick journalist turned politician, in particular has rallied support by exploiting the deep schism between Israel's Orthodox and secular Jews. Lapid has promised to open stores and get public buses running on the Jewish Sabbath, abolish state subsidies for religious schools and take away the exemption religious students enjoy from having to serve in the army.
Even smaller parties are also poised to make a good showing. Amos Bar David, 36, a high school math teacher from Tel Aviv, for instance, said he usually votes for Labor, but is supporting the pro-marijuana Green Leaf Party this year out of frustration.
"This is the only way my vote will be meaningful at all," he said, "by putting a couple of clowns in the Knesset to show the rest of the [members] that the people are sick of them."
Voters will cast one ballot for a party and its list of candidates. Seats in parliament will be awarded proportionate to a party's vote total, and the leader of the winning party will be given 28 days to form a government.
The spread of seats will complicate Sharon's task of forming a stable coalition. Sharon has said he would like to revive the national unity government he led for most of his term, but Mitzna has pledged never to join a coalition with Likud. That means Sharon, 74, probably will form a government that depends on smaller, ultra-nationalist and Orthodox parties. These parties could pressure him into policies concerning the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are in line with their own beliefs, some of which are more extreme than even Sharon's stiff nationalism.
The expected result would continue a steep decline in the fortunes of the Labor Party, which seems to have lost the broad appeal it once had among the public. The party won 44 seats in the 1992 election, dropped to 34 in 1996 and slid to 25 when the current legislature was elected in 1999.
The party was wracked for months by infighting between members who supported the decision of former Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to join Sharon in the national unity government two years ago and those who argued that the party had sold out its ideals in doing so. Ben-Eliezer, who was Sharon's defense minister, and Shimon Peres, who was Sharon's foreign minister, led the party out of the government last October, a move widely seen as a bid to shore up support a month before Labor's leadership convention. Polls showed that a large majority of Israelis liked Sharon's unity government and did not want an early election.
Mitzna, 57, who strongly opposed membership in Sharon's government, defeated Ben-Eliezer in the party primary in November. He inherited a party that was a shambles, with a shrinking base of elite, secular, well-educated and upper-middle-class voters of European descent. And he had only 10 weeks to mount a challenge to Sharon, who was riding high in the polls.
But Mitzna, mayor of Haifa and a newcomer to national politics, created his own problems, too, analysts said, pulling the party left as the public was veering right.
Mitzna rejected calls from Sharon to join in another national unity government after the election, although polls show the public overwhelmingly supports such a coalition. If elected, he vowed to withdraw Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip, dismantle some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and begin peace negotiations with the Palestinians, including Yasser Arafat.
Surveys show that many Israelis believe Labor negotiated a bad deal with Arafat in the Oslo accords and offered him too much in subsequent peace talks. Most Israelis do not want the government to reopen talks with Arafat, preferring Sharon's approach, which has included sending tens of thousands of soldiers to reoccupy seven of the eight largest cities in the West Bank.
"It's a fight for voters in the center, and what's Mitzna's slogan?" said Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "Yes to Arafat, by all means, even with the terrorist situation we're facing, and no to Sharon. People in the center are going to buy that?"
Researchers Eetta Prince-Gibson and Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.