Israel's old left finds a new voice

Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna declared his Labor Party candidacy for Israeli prime minister this month.

With his reserved manner, soporific speaking style, and lack of experience in national affairs, Amram Mitzna seems like an unlikely person to charge up Israeli politics.

But analysts say the rapid rise of the tall, angular mayor of Haifa to the status of prime ministerial hopeful stems largely from the content of his positions: He has staked out the only clear alternative to the hard-line policies of the government since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's election a year and a half ago.

"It is obvious that by force alone, nothing can be solved," Mr. Mitzna told a group of middle-aged and elderly left-wingers in Tel Aviv last Friday.

Mitzna, a retired general, wears a salt-and-pepper beard that dates back to the eve of the 1967 war, when, he says, he and army buddies resolved not to shave until there was peace. With the Palestinian uprising about to enter its third year, there seems scant prospect it will come off any time soon.

"Over the last year, hundreds of citizens and soldiers were killed in Israel despite the fact that we have been using against the terror all of our strength, with the best army commanders, and led by a man who termed himself 'Mr. Security,' " he said.

Mitzna declined to take questions from the press, instead fielding softballs from the sympathetic group that gathers every Friday to commemorate assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his patron in the army and later in politics. He said that Rabin's decision to sign the Oslo agreement was "not a mistake, it was right to try to end the cycle of hostility. But the process was derailed after Yitzhak's murder."

As he shook hands with his listeners afterwards, an accordion was playing the Hebrew song "See How Good It Will be Next Year."

Hope for the doves?

Mitzna's candidacy, declared two weeks ago, offers a test of whether the dovish agenda can be revived in today's Israel, where the prevailing view, articulated repeatedly by the government, is that there is no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.

Mitzna says that if elected, he would immediately open talks with the Palestinian Authority, which the government has shunned on the grounds that this would reward terrorism and that no diplomacy is possible while Yasser Arafat remains the Palestinian leader.

"I have no blind faith in the Palestinians, but let us speak to one another honestly, let us look at each other in the eyes, let us give it one more chance, a real chance," he says. If negotiations fail, he says, Israel will establish an eastern security border unilaterally, withdrawing from most of the West Bank.

The mayor is unabashedly clear that under an agreement or in the event of a unilateral delineation of Israel's eastern border, the 35-year-old Jewish settlement enterprise in the Occupied Territories will have to come to an end. "The friction with the Palestinians is a weight dragging us into the abyss," he says. "We must break free of it. We must tell the 200,000 people who settled in the territories as part of a national mission that the mission today is to return home."

'A new face'

Mitzna attended a military academy for high school and was drafted into the army in 1963. There he spent three decades and fought in three wars, in addition to being the general in charge of the West Bank at the outbreak of the first intifada, when he was known among Palestinians for tough tactics including house demolitions and expulsions. Mitzna says that the post led him to the conclusion that force alone would not solve the conflict and that occupying Palestinian land was harming Israel's values.

Earlier, as a brigadier-general in 1982, he commanded the eastern front in Israel's Lebanon invasion but after the Sabra and Shatilla massacre declared he was resigning from the army to protest the handling of the war by Mr. Sharon, then the defense minister. The chief of staff at the time, Rafael Eitan, dissuaded him from doing so.

"There are some people, particularly in the media, who favor a more dovish approach by the Labor Party, who long for a sharper ideological distinction between Labor and Likud," says Uzi Benziman, a columnist for Ha'aretz.

The current Labor defense minister and Mitzna's rival for party leadership, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, "is perceived as following what Sharon says."

"Mitzna is a new face who still did not disappoint us. It seems that people are looking to him as a messiah who will solve our problems," adds Mr. Benziman.

Polls published Friday in Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper show Mitzna with 62 percent support compared to 32 percent for the current Labor leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

Sharon remains by far the most popular leader, and polls say he would defeat Mitzna by 50 percent to 30 percent. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, another Likud party hopeful, would also defeat Mitzna, with 46 percent to 35 percent.

If he bests Ben-Eliezer in a November primary, Mitzna's chances of becoming prime minister may hinge on the degree of tranquility at the time of the election, which will be held in October 2003 at the latest.

Whether there are terrorist attacks, peace initiatives, or a major US military action in Iraq could all influence the contest, analysts say. "Mitzna is definitely worth keeping an eye on," says Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Not everyone agrees. One commentator, Uri Orbach, wrote in Yediot Ahronot last week that Mitzna, who raised his children on Kibbutz Ein Gev in northern Israel, is an anachronism, a man who embodies the hopes of the old, left-wing Ashkenazi (European-Jewish) establishment that once controlled the country. "He is the darling son of those people who feel that the country and Labor party have been taken away from them."

"But who from among those who voted for Sharon would support a crazed dove like him for prime minister?" Orbach asked.

The Israeli-Arab factor

One advantage Mitzna might have is his ability to enlist the support of Israel's Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population. In the last elections, Arab voters stayed away in droves to protest Prime Minister Ehud Barak's tough policies against the intifada and the shooting of 13 Arab demonstrators by police.

Thanks in part to Mitzna, Jewish-Arab relations in Haifa, which has a 10 percent Arab minority, have remained civil throughout the intifada, according to Shmuel Gelbhardt, an opposition city councilor from the environmentalist Green Party.

"He has sympathy and empathy for the Arab minority, but he has only enmity for the environmentalists," Gelbhardt says. Gelbhardt accuses Mitzna of monopolizing decisionmaking and of turning the city council into a "rubber stamp."

But he predicts the mayor would make a good national leader. "Security is his strong point and in government there would be more checks and balances," he says.

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