Amram Mitzna, the dovish mayor of Haifa who was largely unknown nationally when he announced in August his candidacy for leadership of the Labor Party, sought to develop a united party after wresting control from the more hawkish former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer in Tuesday’s decisive primary.
He immediately announced plans to form a staff that included supporters of Ben-Eliezer, 66, and his other primary opponent, political veteran Haim Ramon, 52. And he offered Ben-Eliezer the No. 2 spot on the Labor Party ticket.
A record 65 percent of the Labor Party’s 110,000 voters cast ballots and gave Mitzna 54 percent of the vote to Ben-Eliezer’s 38 percent and Ramon’s 8 percent.
Mitzna’s win gives new life to a floundering party that had been trounced in the 2001 elections and then lost its identity when it joined the Likud Party 19 months ago to form a unity government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The victory also buoyed the hopes of the all but invisible peace camp, which is expected to heavily support Mitzna, 57, in the Jan. 28 general election.
It will be the first time in years that Israelis will be going to the polls with such a striking contrast to chose from: a Labor Party that wishes to unilaterally separate from the Palestinians if it is unable to work out a negotiated peace, against a Likud Party that wishes to secure peace through a victory on the battle field and an expansion of settlements.
Daniel Pipes, director of the right-leaning Middle East Forum, said Mitzna’s overwhelming election victory is a "remarkable reassertion of the belief that giving more will satiate the Palestinians: that the root to ending the conflict is by being nice. It is, in effect, a reaffirmation of Oslo. … These are extremely polarized positions, far more than anyone would have thought some months ago when it seemed that Ben-Eliezer and the hawkish wing of the Labor Party had taken over."
The 1993 Oslo Accords, which were negotiated by Labor with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, envisioned a land-for-peace settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would end in a Palestinian state. But Palestinian violence kept derailing Israel’s full implementation of the pact, and the last 26 months of almost non-stop Palestinian violence has discredited it for most Israelis.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he sees Mitzna’s election as Labor’s standard-bearer not as a resurrection of Oslo but rather as evidence of his success in capturing the support of Labor members fed up with the violence.
"In recent days he has talked about an immediate, unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and separation [in the West Bank]," Steinberg said. "My guess is he will downplay or abandon his idea of trying to talk to the Palestinians" for a year before unilaterally separating from them in the West Bank.
Pointing out that unilateral separation behind a secure fence was an idea first made popular by Ramon, Steinberg said Labor voters found it more palatable coming from Mitzna (a highly decorated general and newcomer to national politics) than Ramon, who "looks and sounds like a politician with basically no military experience."
"He is not going to take Labor as far left as many people thought," Steinberg added. "He is going to move back towards the center … and is going to give Likud a run for its money. Right now I have to say Likud will win overwhelmingly, but Mitzna will force them to look at very serious issues and will push [Benjamin] Netanyahu to the far right."
Netanyahu, the former prime minister and current foreign minister, is challenging Sharon for leadership of Likud in a Thanksgiving Day primary. This week, Netanyahu’s campaign theme switched from stressing the need for economic recovery to declaring that he would not serve in a government that supported a Palestinian state, which Sharon supports. This came even while many of his supporters (perhaps sensing defeat in the primary) urged both Netanyahu and Sharon to eliminate the primary and agree to rotate the job of prime minister.
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a Knesset member from the Meimad Party, which espouses a moderate Zionist voice, said he does not foresee a rotation agreement but rather a Sharon victory. And with a landslide re-election in January, Sharon "can ignore the extremists in Likud and do the things he wants to do without a need for concessions from Labor."
"He is the only one who can come to the people and say there is no other option, that I have to bring this [violence] to an end," Gilad said. "He can say that to the right and to the settlers. He can be just like [Menachem] Begin," a right-wing prime minister who negotiated a peace treaty with Egypt.
Leslie Feldman, an associate professor of political science at Hofstra University on Long Island, said Sharon is almost certain to win the primary and would win the general election "big time."
"People are putting their faith in him and hope he will rise to the occasion and come up with a plan [to end the Palestinian conflict] that has so far eluded him," she said. "With the death of Abba Eban, everyone is looking for another statesman."
"For better or for worse, he is Israelís leader and people want to stay the course [in a time of war and terrorism]," she added.
Just last weekend an Israeli-Arab tried unsuccessfully to hijack an El Al Airlines plane from Israel to Turkey and crash it into a Tel Aviv skyscraper. He was subdued by sky marshals before he could even open the cockpit door.
And the violence last Friday night in Hebron in which 12 Israeli soldiers, border policemen and civilian security officials were gunned down in an ambush by three Palestinian terrorists should also rally support for Sharon, Feldman said. She noted that the public was reminded that Netanyahu in 1997 agreed to divide Hebron and give Palestinians administrative control of 80 percent of the city.
In his bid to win the general election by moving towards the political center, Mitzna has already begun backtracking on some of his earlier statements, observed David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"In the last week, he said that if his positions could be the centerpiece of a new unity government, he would be willing to join," said Makovsky, noting that Mitzna had earlier flatly ruled out such a union. "And moving to the center means taking a more skeptical position about negotiating with Arafat."
Until a week ago, Mitzna had said he would negotiate with Arafat if that is what it took to negotiate a peace agreement. But, Makovsky noted, he declined to repeat that pledge in an interview a week ago with the Jerusalem Post.
"Mitzna’s election also marks a changing of the guard from the current Labor leadership of Ben-Eliezer and [Shimon] Peres, who were much more skeptical of the idea of unilateral disengagement," he said.
Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations said the size of Mitzna’s victory demonstrates that Labor supporters are "not satisfied with their leadership and want something different because what is being done is not working."
"Now a distinguished general is offering another way to get out of it," she said, referring to the Palestinian conflict. "An overwhelming majority of Israelis want separation, a two-state solution and to live in peace with the Palestinians. This vote reflects Israeli public opinion. … It’s going to be a horse race on Jan. 28 if Mitzna can run a good campaign and stimulate the appropriate public policy debate. The Israeli people will have a clear choice and thatís very good for Israel. Every democracy ought to have that debate."
Public opinion polls show that the Israeli public has shifted to the political right as a result of the Palestinian violence. As a result, Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said he believes Labor has little hope of defeating Likud in January. But he said Mitzna’s election could restore the voice to the once-dominant Labor Party.
"What you have seen is the revival of the part of the Israeli political system that was in total shock by [Ehud] Barakís stunning defeat by Sharon" in 2001, said Cohen. "Barak in losing declared that everything had had happened [in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks] was null and void, and that put the party in a state of shock for nearly two years. They have now revived themselves because they don’t see that Sharon has brought either peace or prosperity; and they are going to make a go for it."
The challenge for Mitzna now, he added, is to recapture the base of the Labor Party. The record turnout in the primary is a good sign and he must now reach out to those who had dropped out of Labor to support third parties, such as Meretz and Shinui, and Israeli Arabs who have embraced the Arab parties.
"Can he arouse them in a belief that the best thing for their interests is a strong Labor Party?" Cohen asked.
Clearly helping Mitzna is the fact that he is not tainted by the past failures of Labor. In the words of Gideon Doron, a former Rabin campaign strategist and now a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University: "What Labor voters were doing is like providing a fresh mix of the cards. They want to gamble on a new face with no national experience or status."
Known simply as ìMitznaî by friends and strangers (reportedly even his wife), the former general is a child of German immigrants. He sports a beard and glasses and gained a reputation as an able administrator who was able to successfully endear himself to the Israeli-Arabs of Haifa, the third largest city in Israel.
"He treated everyone equally," said Doron. "He also drives his own car, which people make a big deal out of."
He has what has been described as an earnest, almost wooden demeanor and is reserved, almost professorial. He is said not to believe in God. As chief of the Army Central Command in the late 1980s, he was known for his harsh tactics in combating the first Palestinian uprising. But he earned the nickname the "dovish general" for his opposition to then-defense minister Ariel Sharon’s handling of the war in Lebanon in 1982. He resigned in protest but was persuaded to stay on by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
At the completion of his 30-year military career, he turned to politics and was elected Haifa’s mayor nine years ago.
But Makovsky pointed out that Likud critics will paint him as "Beilin with a beard," referring to Yossi Beilin, the former justice minister and architect of the Oslo accords.
"He needs to demonstrate that he has a balanced approach that fits the center of the Israeli political spectrum," he said.