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New dovish faction shaping up in Israel

As the country prepares for a national election in February, a new dovish political movement is taking shape in Israel.

Tel Aviv // As the country prepares for a national election in February, a new dovish political movement is taking shape in Israel. A group of about 30 prominent intellectuals, businessmen, breakaways of the mainstream Labor Party and other public figures is patching together a new, leftist faction in a bid to revive a weakened peace movement. The new bloc hopes to become an influential force that would attract voters from well-established parties like Labor and bid to keep the increasingly popular right-wing Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, out of power. The movement, which was inaugurated last Friday but still does not have a name, has attracted media attention in Israel mostly because of its high-profile line-up of founders. They include internationally acclaimed authors Amos Oz and David Grossman, a former Labor cabinet minister and one-time parliamentary speaker, Avraham Burg, as well as Tzali Reshef, a founder of the Peace Now group and a former Labor politician. Rather than forming a new party, they aim to bolster Meretz, a dovish party that has been politically marginalised in recent years, and strive to help it return to its glory political days of the early 1990s, when it held 12 parliamentary seats out of 120. Meretz - which advocates an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, as well as the adoption of the 2002 Arab peace initiative - currently occupies five seats. The new bloc is counting on grabbing votes from Labor, one of Israel's most well-established parties, which dominated political and economic life in the three decades after the Jewish state's establishment in 1948. Mr Oz, one of Israel's most well-regarded intellectuals, told Haaretz this week that he hoped the new faction "would turn into an alternative to the Labor Party." He added that "Labor is finishing its historic path, isn't presenting a national agenda and joins any coalition". Labor's popularity is declining, partly because supporters are dissatisfied that Ehud Barak - the Labor leader who also serves as defence minister - has done little to halt settlement construction in the West Bank and has not ruled out joining a government led by Likud should the rightist party prevail in the election. Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, announced his resignation from the party on Sunday. "I can't convince even those who are closest to me to vote for Labor. Labor has lost its way," he told journalists. Polls show the party may win only about 12 parliamentary seats in the upcoming election, down from its current 19. "Every seat taken away from [the party] will be no less than a catastrophe," wrote Yossi Verter, a commentator, in Haaretz. Concern about the Likud's possible ascent to power has triggered the new left-wing coalition's formation. Mr Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, is more hawkish and less open to dialogue with the Palestinians than his main contenders for the premiership - the Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, and Labor's Mr Barak. According to recent polls, Mr Netanyahu is slightly ahead of his rivals and his party may garner about 30 parliamentary seats. If he wins, he is expected to be able to put together a right-leaning governing coalition along with religious and nationalist parties. The new coalition hopes to strengthen Meretz, which is increasingly considered irrelevant on Israel's political map. The party has recently lost two prominent lawmakers: Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s as well as of the 2003 Geneva Initiative, an unofficial peace proposal drawn up by Israeli and Palestinian public figures; and Ran Cohen, considered the party's spokesman on social welfare issues. Furthermore, the party's long-time support of a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians - once considered a fringe opinion - has now become a mainstream stance. It has lost supporters to Kadima, a centrist party founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli leader. It advocates giving up territories to keep a Jewish majority in Israel. Kadima became the ruling party in parliament after the 2006 elections, winning 29 seats. Despite the transformation of once-hawkish politicians like Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, many are sceptical that the new left-wing movement could recover the Israeli peace camp's lost popularity. Still, the new bloc hopes to attract disappointed Labor voters, Israelis who supported Kadima in the last elections in 2006 and are disillusioned with its performance, protest voters, and young people who have not bothered to cast ballots in the past. Although the movement's founders acknowledge that Meretz today differs little from Kadima, they believe voters will give it credit for promoting a dovish stance before it was adopted by mainstream parties. "Meretz stuck to its principles and at the end of the day convinced people from the Right that this indeed is the way," said Gilad Sher, a former top adviser to Mr Barak when the latter was prime minister from 1999 to 2001, in an interview with Israel's Channel 10 TV. vbekker@thenational.ae