Labour suffers its worst electoral defeat ever

By Justin Huggler
Wednesday 29 January 2003 01:00

Amram Mitzna tried to put on a brave face last night as he joined a sing-along of Israeli folk songs at the Labour party headquarters. But there was no hiding his disappointment; Mr Mitzna knew Labour was going to lose, but he didn't know it would be this bad. Exit polls predicted the party would win just 18 seats, the worst result in its history.

And it came after the most radically pro-peace campaign by a Labour leader. Neither Yitzhak Rabin nor Ehud Barak committed themselves so publicly to a pro-peace agenda as Mr Mitzna did, with his vow to negotiate with Yasser Arafat and to order unilateral withdrawals, from Gaza at once and from the West Bank if there was no peace deal within a year. Israeli voters roundly rejected that agenda yesterday.

Mr Mitzna did not waste time waiting before he telephoned Ariel Sharon to concede. And Mr Sharon's Likud party did not wait before it started trying to woo the Labour party into joining a coalition under Mr Sharon.

But Mr Mitzna was insistent in conceding defeat last night that Labour would not join a coalition under Mr Sharon.

"It's no shame to be in opposition," he said. "Our time there will be short. Sharon hopes the Labour party will once more serve as a fig leaf for his failing policy. But we do not intend to join [him], but to replace him!"

It remains to be seen whether it will be up to Mr Mitzna. In the run-up to the elections, Israeli pundits were predicting that Mr Mitzna needed to hold on to at least 20 Knesset seats to retain the Labour leadership. His rivals within the party are already sharpening their knives but it is the grassroots members who choose the leader, and it is not clear whether they want to ditch Mr Mitzna or keep him on.

Mr Mitzna's rivals are reportedly coming round to the view that voters rejected Labour because it had spent the last two years as Mr Sharon's junior coalition partner, and that the party might recover better in opposition.

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