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Ex-General to Lead Labor Party

Mayor of Haifa says he's committed to peace talks with Palestinians if he wins Israeli election and would pull troops and settlers out of Gaza.

November 20, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Former army Gen. Amram Mitzna took up a quixotic task Tuesday, leading his left-leaning Labor Party into battle against the overwhelmingly favored right-wing Likud in advance of Israel's general elections in January.

Mitzna, the bearded, bespectacled mayor of the coastal city of Haifa, crushed his opponents in a three-way race for his party's leadership and early today declared his commitment to restarting peace talks with the Palestinians if he wins in January.

The 57-year-old Mitzna told a post-midnight victory rally at party headquarters in Tel Aviv that his goal is "not only to replace the government but to create a different reality, a different society in Israel."

The new Labor leader said he would pull Israeli troops and Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip, whether or not the Palestinians offered any concessions in return.

To many observers, Mitzna's decisive victory over less liberal rivals -- former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and veteran lawmaker Haim Ramon -- was a strong signal that the party faithful want to see Labor return to its roots and resume its traditional role as the principal political opposition to Likud.

For more than a decade, Labor championed efforts to make peace with the Palestinians, culminating in 1993 with the signing of the landmark Oslo interim peace accords and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's historic handshake with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.

But following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's election in February 2001, Labor entered into a partnership with Likud. That collapsed three weeks ago when Ben-Eliezer led a walkout from the governing coalition.

The breakup coincided with a fight over funding for Jewish settlements, but many commentators suspected that Ben-Eliezer precipitated the split to better position himself for the Labor leadership race by putting distance between himself and Sharon.

If that was indeed his strategy, it was one of the more memorable miscalculations in recent Israeli political history. Mitzna routed the former defense minister, garnering 54% of the vote to Ben-Eliezer's 38%, according to final tallies. Ramon was a distant third with 7%.

Although polls had predicted a comfortable win for Mitzna heading into the contest, victory was by no means certain.

Old-style machine politics are still a powerful force in Israel, and Ben-Eliezer had plenty of chits to cash in. And he clearly had the loyalty of a core of shock troops among the 120,000 registered Labor members who were eligible to vote in the primary.

At one polling place, in the leafy, genteel Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, Ben-Eliezer partisans in bright orange T-shirts shouted down the soft-spoken Mitzna when he tried to talk to supporters and TV cameras Tuesday morning. They drowned him out with yells of "Fu-ad! Fu-ad!" -- Ben-Eliezer's nickname.

As results rolled in Tuesday evening, quickly pointing to a lopsided win for Mitzna, he called on Ben-Eliezer to present a united front.

But his rival refused to accept the early results, conceding only after midnight, when no doubt was left. Ben-Eliezer promised to work for the party's success, though he devoted most of his concession speech to thanking his supporters.

Israeli media reports spoke of disbelief and fury in the Ben-Eliezer camp as the tally mounted, saying he and his backers believed until almost the last moment that he would somehow prevail.

Mitzna has been mayor of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, for nearly a decade but is a newcomer to national politics. By fielding him as a candidate, Labor stakes out positions diametrically opposed to those of the Sharon government, which has cut off all dealings with Arafat and unleashed massive military force in 25 months of bitter conflict with the Palestinians.

Sharon himself faces a leadership challenge next Thursday from Benjamin Netanyahu, the foreign minister in his caretaker government. Polls suggest the prime minister, who called early elections after his coalition with Labor fell apart, is likely to prevail.

Netanyahu, commenting on the Labor results, sought to portray both Sharon and Mitzna as too willing to make concessions to the Palestinians.

"There are three candidates for prime minister at the moment, and two of them support a Palestinian state," he told Israeli TV.

"One," he said, referring to himself, "does not."

Analysts said the results pointed up a potentially divisive factor in the general election: ethnicity.

The Iraqi-born Ben-Eliezer has always had a strong appeal to Jews of Middle Eastern origin, the Sephardim, while Mitzna, with his German-Polish roots, tends to draw support from Ashkenazim, or European-descended Jews.

Labor could be even more handicapped at the polls in January if it cannot motivate Sephardic voters, who wield enormous electoral clout.

In Israeli politics, candidates who openly call for territorial concessions in exchange for peace must possess impeccable military credentials, so voters trust that they are not jeopardizing Israel's security.

That was the case with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who could point to a record as Israel's most decorated soldier when he was elected on a peace platform in 1999.

Mitzna, who was twice wounded in battle, commanded the Syrian front during the war in Lebanon, during which he threatened to quit over deep disagreements with Sharon, then the defense minister.

Palestinian leaders generally avoid publicly praising an Israeli leftist candidate for fear of hurting his chances, but Palestinian parliament speaker Ahmed Korei said he was heartened by Mitzna's stated intention to restart negotiations and get troops and settlers out of Gaza.

"I hope the Israeli people choose a leader willing and able to achieve a stable, comprehensive peace," he said.

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