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Backing the wrong horse?

As opposed to Israeli weather forecasts, in Israeli politics there are no certainties.

Clouds and rainstorms are unpredictable, while cold and hot fronts can meet with frightening regularity.

So most political pundits are enjoying the rare chance to predict an election result, where seemingly they cannot go wrong.

Tomorrow three men are expected to face their voters in one of the least even, and perhaps dullest, elections in recent years. The Labor Party leadership primary. Amram Mitzna is so hot a favorite, it is thought a second round of voting will prove unnecessary. Riding at 50 percent in the polls, it seems as though incumbent leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer does not know what has hit him.

It was little more than six months ago that Ben-Eliezer took over as the captain of Israel’s largest parliamentary party, following a hiatus of several months, after the resignation of Ehud Barak. Barak recently expressed his disappointment that the party felt it necessary for there to be a challenge to his replacement, when Ben-Eliezer has hardly got his feet under the table.

The slap in Ben-Eliezer’s face is enormous. The latest polls suggest he will garner just 30% of votes cast.

For the record, the third candidate is former health minister Haim Ramon, with a paltry 10%, according to pollsters.

Some pundits maintain it is not so much that Mitzna is Mr. Perfect, but more that the other men are not. It is sometimes difficult to take the jovial Ben-Eliezer too seriously. He is too average. Too much like you and me. Ramon, meanwhile, is too much of a politician and, yes, perhaps his eyebrows to make him look too shifty.

Note the number of times the word “too” was used in the last paragraph. It is a word that can hardly be used in the context of Mitzna, with one exception. His rivals charge he is too inexperienced for the job. They have a fair point. He has never held a national political post. However, under his leadership as city mayor, Haifa has come on in leaps and bounds. Clean, with an excellent public-transport system, the city can now proudly sell itself as a serious tourism destination.

Under Mitzna, the city’s Arab community has thrived, or at least done far better than in previous years.

And this brings us to the problem. While no one, but no one, is challenging Mitzna’s desire to help the country’s Arabs who are more-often-than-not treated as second-class citizens, the political right accuses him of being the archetypal dove.

Now being a peacenik in quiet times is well and good. However, these days it is not the most politically savvy thing to be.

And that means…

Once Mitzna has probably romped to victory, he is likely to lead Labor to its most crushing defeat in Israel’s turbulent electoral history. The polls are suggesting Labor’s strength will be cut from 26 Knesset seats (including three held by two smaller parties that joined up with Labor at the last election) to somewhere in the teens.

The wall-to-wall prediction is that Mitzna will prove to be an electoral burden. Poll after poll suggests the average Israeli, including the average Labor-voting Israeli wants to see a tough leader in charge of a strong government when it comes to the country’s dealings with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors. The people do not believe Mitzna offers that choice.

He talks of the need for a strong response to terrorism, alongside a desire to commence negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, but the public seemingly remains unconvinced.

Tomorrow it will be up to a predicted 60,000 Labor members to decide on the fate of their party, the party that ran Israel uninterrupted from 1948 until 1977. Mitzna may well be the best man, but not right now. He will in all probability have a lot of explaining to do, come the morning after the January 28 general election.

Labor members can still prove the political weather forecasters wrong, by doing the sensible thing and voting for Ben-Eliezer, the party’s acknowledged hawk. However, this time, it seems as though Labor is going to damn itself to several years in the wilderness.