Party leaders fall on their swords as price to pay for preaching politics of peace

By Justin Huggler
Thursday 30 January 2003 01:00

Israel's elections have already claimed two party leaders as victims. The question now is whether they will claim a third: Amram Mitzna.

Mr Mitzna's Labour party suffered the worst election defeat in its history after he led the party's most radically pro-peace election campaign.

Neither Yitzhak Rabin nor Ehud Barak had promised as much as Mr Mitzna, who said he would return to the negotiating table with Yasser Arafat and order an immediate unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But Labour was not the only pro-peace party to suffer at the hands of the voters. Meretz, the most pro-peace of Israel's political parties, except the Arab parties, suffered losses as catastrophic as Labour's, slipping from 10 Knesset seats to just six.

Its long-standing leader, Yossi Sarid, told tearful supporters he was resigning, because, he said, some one had to take responsibility.

One of the better known of Israel's smaller parties' leaders, Natan Sharansky, said he would immediately resign his seat in the Knesset after his Yisrael b'Aliyah party slumped from four seats to two.

Mr Sharanksy was a prominent Soviet dissident and human rights activist who immigrated to Israel in 1986 after being freed in Berlin after nine years in a Soviet prison. He was initially courted by the main Israeli parties but chose instead to found Yisrael b'Aliyah, a party dedicated to the Russian immigrant community.

Yesterday he said he might stay on as leader outside parliament, and would consider accepting a government post if Mr Sharon offered him one.

But there was no doubt that the biggest casualty of the election was Labour. The question now is whether Mr Mitzna can survive leading the party to its worst election result. Before the vote, Israeli pundits said he needed at least 20 seats to hold on to the party leadership. But Mr Mitzna could win Labour only 19.

He was clear about his intentions. The speech in which he conceded defeat to Ariel Sharon was defiant. He said he had no intention of following Mr Sarid's example but intended to stay on as party leader in opposition. And senior figures in Labour – including some close to Mr Mitzna's rivals for the party leadership –suggested the party might not ditch him yet.

One of the party's 19 remaining Knesset members said the lesson of the election had been that voters were sick of the in-fighting in Labour. The mood may not last, but it appeared yesterday that many in Labour were considering giving Mr Mitzna the chance to rebuild the shattered party.

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