Published on Wednesday, August 14, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Leftist Mayor Announces Bid to Unseat Sharon
As the Leader of Labor Party, He'd Push for Peace
by Danielle Haas
JERUSALEM -- Declaring there is "no time left" to waste before returning to the negotiating table with Palestinians, the popular mayor of Israel's northern city of Haifa declared his candidacy Tuesday for the Labor Party chairmanship and for prime minister.
Leftists hope that Amram Mitzna's entry into the race will reinvigorate the flailing party as it struggles to assert its identity while serving in the right-wing national unity government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"Ariel Sharon is leading us to a disaster. Nothing he is doing on security and economic issues is getting us anywhere. That's why so many citizens have lost hope," Mitzna said -- adding, however, that Israel will "continue to strike at terror and to use every means to destroy it."
In recent days, Mitzna has outlined a political vision that includes a peace deal in which Palestinians would receive all of the Gaza Strip and 95 percent of the West Bank.
The plan is similar to that offered by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the Camp David peace summit in 2000.
The summit ultimately failed and was followed by a new Palestinian uprising in September that year and the deadly round of suicide bombings and retribution killings that grips Israel today.
Mitzna said that if new peace talks with the Palestinians were to fail within a given time frame, he would draw Israel's border unilaterally and uproot Jewish settlements in the West Bank east of the line.
That would put him at odds with Jewish settlers, but not for the first time:
As commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank during the 1987-to-1993 Palestinian uprising, Mitzna was often accused by Jewish settlers of being too soft on Palestinians -- and by leftists of being too harsh.
"A unilateral move is obviously less good than a peace agreement, but it would bring us security separation and a secure border," he said. "The world will then have to advance Palestinian society, and a new diplomatic horizon and peace agreement will be the eventual result."
An international force would rule Jerusalem's Old City, with Jews responsible for their holy sites and Muslims for theirs, he said.
Asked whether he would follow Sharon's lead in sidelining Arafat as a peace partner, Mitzna said Israel "cannot choose" Palestinian leaders but added that he would not meet with the Palestinians prior to the election.
Opinion polls suggest that Mitzna, who was decorated for his role in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, will be a candidate to be reckoned with in the Labor primary in November.
A survey in Yerushaliyim newspaper of 401 Labor Party members found that the Haifa mayor would easily defeat the two other candidates -- Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Haim Ramon -- if Labor primaries for party chairman and prime ministerial candidate were held today.
Fifty-two percent of respondents said they would back Mitzna, compared with 36 percent for Ben-Eliezer and 16 percent for Ramon.
That bodes well for Mitzna in the short term, but experts say the weakened state of the party means it faces an almost insurmountable challenge when it comes to confronting Sharon's Likud party in the next general election, scheduled for October 2003.
SHARON STILL THE MAN TO BEAT
Labor has never recovered from Barak's landslide defeat by Sharon. And though Sharon's popularity has fallen in the polls from 70 percent to 50 percent, he is still clearly the man to beat.
"All we can do is extrapolate from polls that suggest it doesn't really matter who is leader -- the party will still lose, although it seems (Mitzna's candidacy) would give it a better chance," said Israeli political analyst Mark Heller.
He attributed Mitzna's current strong showing in the polls at least partly to "enthusiasm for a new face" and appreciation for someone who has the strong military record that has often been a prerequisite of any Israeli who hopes to make it big in the political arena.
"People always get excited when there is someone not compromised by a long history of national politics. You can equate it to the man on horseback -- the white knight who comes in to save the situation. But if the past is anything to go by, the bloom goes off the rose pretty quickly," Heller said. Barak, Sharon and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin all came to office with similar credentials and struggled in the face of the intractable Palestinian conflict.
Critics say Mitzna lacks political experience, tends to make decisions by himself without consultation and is overly cozy with big business, which has funneled funds into politics in Haifa.
The mayor's supporters say he has the right combination of a great military past and experience in civil administration needed at this time. Haifa, where Mitzna has held office since 1993, is often cited as a city where Jews and Arabs live together in relative peace.
Most Labor parliamentarians have not yet announced whom they are supporting, but new blood in the leadership role could prove crucial to sustaining the peace camp within the party, where disillusionment is rife over Labor's participation in the hawkish Sharon-led government.
LABOR'S LEFT WING ALIENATED
Ben-Eliezer's role in keeping it there and his leadership, as defense minister, in major military offensives against the Palestinians, has particularly alienated the left wing of the party. Prominent Labor figures, including former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of interim peace deals with the Palestinians, have said they would leave the party if Ben-Eliezer remained party chief.
The Labor race has drawn more attention than might be expected because of threats by Labor to vote in October against Sharon's 2003 budget, which would cut social welfare programs while preserving subsidies for settlers. The prime minister has warned that he would call early elections if Labor made good on its threats, meaning that elections would then be held within 90 days of Sharon's decision, or nine months ahead of schedule.
A future showdown with the hawkish prime minister would be familiar ground for Mitzna, who as a brigadier general during the Lebanon war demanded at a conference of officers that Sharon, who was then defense minister, resign from his position.
Only intervention by the chief of staff and then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, saved Mitzna from being summarily discharged.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle