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Jewish Journal

Partners in Dysfunction

by James D. Besser

November 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Israel and the United States have a lot more in common these days, and it's not just because the Bush administration has apparently adopted an Israeli military tactic they previously criticized: targeted assassinations.

That became apparent last week when a CIA-operated drone plane blasted a group of alleged Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen.

No, there's more: both nations have utterly demoralized, dysfunctional opposition parties. For Americans, that became clearer on Nov. 5, when President George W. Bush defied the conventional wisdom that parties in the White House always lose seats in Congress in midterm elections.

And it is even more apparent in Israel, where new elections in January will really just be a contest between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership.

The Labor Party and others that oppose the current government's hard-line policies are officially in the race, but it is universally expected they will lose ground.

Like the Democrats in this country, Labor doesn't have a message for voters. So not surprisingly, the once-proud party will be just so much background noise in the upcoming elections.

The Democrats, reeling from last week's midterm election loss, should take a good, hard look at the sorry state of Israel's once-dominant Labor Party.

For two years, Labor leaders stuck like glue to a "unity" government whose leader, Sharon, played them for chumps. They rationalized that they were keeping the government from swinging too far to the right, but in the end all they did was convey the impression that their only real goal was to hold on to whatever scraps of power were thrown their way.

Their leaders are weak and vacillating, right out of the Tom Daschle playbook; they spend more time fighting each other than fighting Likud. The impression they create is of petty politicians worried mostly about their own jobs, not principled leaders worried about the country.

Many Laborites fear Sharon is leading the country to economic and strategic disaster, but their fears of being labeled soft on security -- and perhaps their own lack of creative ideas -- have turned off a worried electorate.

They seem to feel that if they're vague enough, voters may mistake them for Likudniks, but the public isn't buying their political camouflage act.

After last week's congressional elections in this country, the Democrats may be heading in the same direction. They took a pasting not because voters didn't like their ideas, but because voters couldn't figure out what the heck those ideas were.

A timid, confused congressional leadership tried to act as an opposition party without really opposing a president they feared.

Democratic candidates across the country tried to blend in with the mostly Republican landscape, and then acted surprised when voters didn't see them. When they did take on the Republicans, it was just to carp and criticize, not offer creative new ideas for dealing with the nation's problems.

Many Democrats distrust the president's rush to war with Iraq -- like a big chunk of the electorate -- but were too fearful to speak out when they had the chance. And they were loathe to offer any new ideas of their own on how to deal with the undeniable menace of rogue and terror states that are rushing to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Many Democrats believe that Republican economic policy -- tax cuts, tax cuts and then more tax cuts -- will make a bad economic situation much worse and create enormous pressure to cut vital health and social service programs.

But those criticisms were muted to the point of inaudibility during the long campaign, mostly because Democrats were petrified of being tarred with the "tax and spend" label. Indeed, many had earlier swallowed their misgivings and voted for a big tax cut they regarded as destructive. Not exactly profiles in courage.

Ditto the issue of corporate malfeasance. There is a widespread feeling in Democratic circles that the Republican administration and Congress have no intention of bringing about serious reforms that will prevent new Enrons and Worldcoms, but the fear of going out on any limbs has rendered the party elders speechless.

Instead, Democrats have worked hard to blur their message. Not surprisingly voters see less and less reason to vote for them. In two years, the Democrats will try to unseat Bush, but without stronger leadership and a clearly defined message, their hopes will be just as futile as Labor's in the upcoming Israeli reelection.

The reality in both countries is that the conservatives know what they want and aren't afraid to go after it aggressively, while the liberals are so worried about getting left behind that they serve up indigestible, unpalatable milquetoast.

Labor long ago abrogated its responsibility to offer an assertive, intelligent opposition, and the result is that the party is rapidly becoming marginal in Israeli politics. Here, the Democrats are in danger of following the same self-destructive path.

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