Mitzna Wins Labor

If Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna hopes to becomes Israel’s next prime minister, he faces a daunting challenge: resuscitating a moribund Labor Party in a little more than two months.

A day after the dovish newcomer to national politics won a sweeping victory in Labor’s leadership primary, political observers warned Mitzna that he had only passed the easy part.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz noted that Mitzna has an extraordinarily short time to consolidate his position in Labor, neutralize potentially hostile camps within the party, win the loyalty of senior party members, organize a national election campaign and inject new life into a dispirited party.

Even then, his chances of winning the Jan. 28 national elections are considered slim: Polls show the Likud Party with a daunting lead over Labor.

Essentially, one commentator noted in Wednesday’s Jerusalem Post, Labor members chose Mitzna to be the next opposition leader, not the next prime minister. If Labor loses in January, Mitzna might be asked to step down as party chairman. If he refuses to do so, he might face another challenge for the party chairmanship next summer.

The final results of Tuesday’s primaries bore out the predictions of exit polls: Mitzna received 54 percent of the vote, incumbent chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer won about 39 percent and legislator Haim Ramon won slightly more than 7 percent.

The soft-spoken Mitzna immediately extended an olive branch to his two Labor rivals in a bid to unite forces in preparation for the national campaign. He said his first task would be to unite the party "as one big beehive, a joint staff, in order to lead the Labor Party in the most important of all confrontations, with the Likud," the Ha’aretz newspaper reported.

Critical to this undertaking will be reconciliation with Ben-Eliezer, whose withdrawal from Sharon’s unity government — Ben-Eliezer had been defense minister –precipitated Sharon’s decision to call elections. A longtime party veteran, Ben-Eliezer still has a formidable political machine within Labor. Mitzna offered Ben-Eliezer the No. 2 position on Labor’s Knesset list for the elections, but Ben-Eliezer said he needed time to consider the offer.

Mitzna, 57, is a former general who clashed with then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon during the 1982 Lebanon War and commanded Israeli troops in the West Bank during the first intifada in the late 1980s. His tenure as Haifa mayor generally is considered successful — the city is seen as a model for Arab-Jewish coexistence — but opponents accuse him of being too close to business interests and allowing for virtually unchecked real estate development.

Continuing an Israeli tradition of placing their faith in white knights with little political experience — Ehud Barak and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak were two other ex-generals seen briefly as political saviors, but whose stars quickly burned out — Mitzna burst onto the national stage just several months ago and instantly became the leading candidate for Labor’s chairmanship.

Described as aloof, somewhat stiff and yet open to counsel, Mitzna galvanized a left wing thrown into disarray when the peace process collapsed in the terrorist waves of the intifada.

The national unity government of Sharon and Ben-Eliezer, who served as defense minister, refused to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat or even contemplate a diplomatic process while violence continued. Mitzna, however, said he would be willing to negotiate under fire, and would talk with any Palestinian leader, including Arafat. If negotiations fail to produce an agreement, he said, Israel would withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank within a year. Mitzna also pledged to uproot Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip immediately upon taking office.

On the economy, Mitzna advocates less spending on settlement and more on retirees, students and poor development towns.

Such positions provide voters with a stark contrast to the Likud. Mitzna’s stance toward the Palestinians — and his insistence that disengaging from the Palestinians will allow Israel to focus on its own domestic problems — is likely to appeal to left-wing voters who complained that their voices weren’t heard during the 19 months of national unity government.

Whether such positions will win over the mass of Israelis in the center — whose votes have proved crucial in the last three elections — is far less clear. Most public opinion polls show Israeli public opinion moving to the right since the intifada began.

The national election will come into greater focus after the Nov. 28 primary in the Likud, when Sharon faces off against Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Writing in Ha’aretz, political commentator Yoel Marcus wrote that Mitzna will stand a better chance if the Likud is led by Netanyahu, who espouses a harder line than Sharon.