Arab moderates root for Israel's Labor candidate

Although trailing in the polls, Amram Mitzna is viewed as a better partner in efforts to promote peace.

It may be scant comfort to Israeli Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, who is trailing badly in opinion polls just a week ahead of a crucial general election, but his bid to become prime minister has gained supporters across Israel's borders.

In Lebanon, the Daily Star took up his cause in a front-page editorial. "Many Israelis read the Daily Star on the Internet," the newspaper wrote Saturday. "If this newspaper can convince even a few of them to vote for Mitzna by having articulated the hope he inspires on this side of the divide, the effort will have been worth it."

In Amman and Cairo as well, Arab leaders, opinion-makers, and analysts are looking at - and, more significantly, beyond - next Tuesday's Israeli elections to ask what role moderates in the Arab world might play in boosting the Israeli left wing. While the Labor Party stands little chance of getting enough Knesset seats next week to head a new coalition government, some Arab leaders still hope it can oust Sharon's Likud Party next time around. The next election must occur within four years, but could be held sooner if the government is toppled sooner by a no-confidence vote.

In a sense, the Israeli election is seen as part of a longer-term process of possible political transformation that, along with Egyptian efforts to achieve a ceasefire declaration among Palestinian factions, could eventually help restart peace negotiations.

The hope is that Mr. Mitzna, the angular, bearded mayor of Haifa and former general who espouses renewed peace talks, can tally a sufficiently respectable showing to maintain his leadership of the Labor Party. Arab moderates would also prefer that the Labor Party does not join the Likud Party in a unity government, thus leaving Mr. Sharon with an unstable, unpopular far-right coalition that could then be toppled.

"These elections will result in hell, and after hell we can reach a peaceful shore," says Michel Edde, who served as a Lebanese minister over three decades.

"Mitzna is encouraging," Mr. Edde adds. "He is an honest man. There are many things on which I don't agree with him, but I respect him. This election is his first step. He will need two, three, or four years in opposition to become prime minister. His position is the only way for a sound settlement."

Within Israel, however, new polls are intensifying questions about Mitzna's political survival. Among an electorate that associates the Palestinian Authority above all else with terrorism, the same readiness for talks and territorial concessions that has won points abroad has not helped Mitzna at home.

The polls showed Labor tallying only 19 to 20 seats in a new Knesset, compared with 30 to 32 for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party. Labor legislators with low ranking on the Knesset list are demanding Mitzna make way for veteran leader Shimon Peres.

Mr. Sharon is widely seen in the Arab world as having escalated the Palestinian conflict by using greater military force and reoccupying the West Bank. He is also criticized for thwarting negotiating efforts and peace initiatives, including a Saudi proposal for pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.

"To achieve anything, we need to change the internal constellation of political forces in Israel and strengthen the pragmatic camp," says Hassan Barari, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Amman. "At the end of the day, we have the Saudi initiative, and we need a partner for it."

Egypt is hoping some form of a declaration will emanate from tomorrow's meetings of Palestinian factions in Cairo. But Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, has objected to stopping attacks, and Israel has dismissed any halt to violence that does not include settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Egypt is trying to find a road out of the vicious circle between Israel and the Palestinians," says Hala Mustapha, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "A lot of effort needs to be exerted by the Palestinian side to assure that negotiations could be resumed."

Jordanian initiative

In what Jordanian analysts saw as a belated and modest bid at influencing the elections, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher last week held a highly publicized meeting in Amman with leading Israeli doves Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid to start a series of contacts with Israeli political parties. "Our influence is limited but we cannot just sit and wait," says Mr. Barari.

"The Israeli public needs to receive the message that we want to deal with Labor, that we cannot deal with Sharon," he says. "And if there are no suicide bombings before the election, that can also affect the mood, so that people will not vote for Sharon out of a fearful reaction."

But that is a big if, not only now but after the elections. "I'm not really sure the Egyptian intervention can be 100 percent effective, since no one has complete control over all the armed Palestinian factions," says Mr. Mustapha. Two weeks ago, as Egyptian mediation efforts continued, the militia of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction carried out two bombings in Tel Aviv that killed 23 people.

'Minor difference'

Leith Shbeilat, a former member of the Jordanian parliament who is highly critical of the government, said: "Maybe, maybe Mitzna could make a minor difference, but we tried others before and they were all similar to Sharon."

He condemned the effort to halt suicide bombings in Israel.

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