NEW YORK — The Jan. 28 elections in Israel offer voters a clear choice: either they choose to continue with policies that have only brought increased violence and misery to their country, or they can take the bold step of choosing a candidate with risky but novel ideas on how to deal with the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

The elections came about because both the Likud and the Labor parties failed to agree on allocations to Jewish settlements. While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon easily won the leadership contest for Likud, former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer lost the Labor contest to Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, who won with 60 percent of the vote. During his 10 years as mayor of Haifa, Mitzna has shown true respect for Jewish-Arab relations and great concern for social and economic issues.

The shrinking pool of Labor voters is making it difficult for Mitzna to mount a serious challenge to Sharon. But he offers a genuine alternative to the present situation of unrelenting violence between Jews and Palestinians.

He has expressed an unconditional willingness to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and has indicated that even if negotiations fail to produce an agreement he would unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces from extensive sections of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and vacate selected Jewish settlements.

Although Sharon promised to crush the Palestinian intifada, the violence has only worsened. Before he assumed power, the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed was 100 to 1. Now it is 4 to 1. According to Amnesty International, from September 2000 to September 2002, 1700 Palestinians were killed, including 250 children. In the same time, 580 Israelis were killed, including 72 children.

At the same time Sharon has increased defense spending, he has failed to deliver on the economic front. It is estimated that 20 percent of Israelis live below the poverty line, including 530,000 children, and over a million people are on welfare. Economic growth has been negative for the past two years, socioeconomic inequality is increasing and unemployment has risen to nearly 11 percent. The country is in deep recession and an atmosphere of fear pervades Israeli society.

Palestinians, for their part, need to present a coherent and viable peace plan that takes into account Israel’s concerns, and that can bolster Mitzna’s claim to have a credible peace option.

Such a proposal could be along the lines of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s proposal made last spring — which called for, among other things, an immediate cessation of violence on both sides — and should include a specific timetable. The Palestinians should also come up with — of their own accord — a younger leadership untainted by corruption and willing to make the necessary sacrifices for a better future for them and their children.

It is encouraging that several opinion polls now indicate that a large Palestinian majority supports an end to Palestinian terror attacks even if it means reining in Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. But this should be accompanied by an immediate end to the construction of new Jewish settlements, which has continued unabated, and which has been a serious obstacle for peace negotiations. Sharon is totally opposed to such a move.

The chances of Mitzna’s success are slim. The voters, turning away from Likud, are moving toward Shinui, a secular party, and to the religious parties on the extreme right. The overwhelming number of Israelis who yearn for peace have a responsibility to choose a peace candidate — which Sharon clearly is not. For all his self-avowed patriotism and concern, Sharon’s actions have not brought the conflict any closer to a solution.

And this is precisely what makes Tuesday’s election so critical. For peace to have a chance in the region, Sharon must be defeated. His brutal policies toward the Palestinians merit universal condemnation.

If the region is not to descend into a maelstrom, Israelis need to vote more with their heads than with their hearts. This is, perhaps, one of their most important chances to achieve peace and justice with the Palestinians.

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