JERUSALEM - Dovish former general Amram Mitzna has resigned as Israeli opposition leader, leaving Israel's veteran peace party in turmoil and left-wingers stranded even deeper in the political wilderness.
While the once-powerful Labor Party pondered a future weakened by an electoral shift to the right caused by a Palestinian uprising for statehood, a U.S. envoy planned further talks on Monday on pushing a new peace plan.
Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, who met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday, was to meet Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
Burns is preparing the ground, ahead of a visit later this week by Secretary of State Colin Powell, for the most concerted peace drive in the region since U.S.-brokered talks collapsed in mid-2000.
Burns said Israel should ease a military clampdown on Palestinians to encourage them to rein in militants behind violence in which at least 2,036 Palestinians and 737 Israelis have been killed since the revolt began in September 2000.
The Israeli government said in a statement there would be no change in its military operations without "a Palestinian battle against terrorism."
But it was Mitzna's surprise decision to quit as Labor chairman -- five months after he led it to its most devastating election defeat -- that spoke volumes about the current state of peacemaking in Israel.
Accusing Labor rivals of "fighting me instead of fighting for peace," Mitzna announced at a hastily convened news conference on Sunday that he was stepping down after nine months in the post.
He had tried in the campaign leading to Israel's general election last January to steer Labor back toward the peace path it blazed in the early 1990s when it spearheaded landmark interim accords with the Palestinians.
LABOUR FAILED TO RALLY VOTERS
Mitzna's call for unilateral troop pullbacks from occupied land and the removal of some Jewish settlements failed to rally voters or top officials at Labor, right-winger Sharon's main coalition partner in his previous government.
Labor lost a quarter of its seats in the 120-member parliament in the January poll won overwhelmingly by Sharon's Likud party.
"I am sorry to say there are people in the party who...did their utmost to sabotage me," Mitzna told the news conference.
Those who might replace him in a leadership contest expected by the end of July include hawkish ex-defense chief Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has spoken bitterly of Palestinian leaders with whom he negotiated.
Mitzna's resignation will have no immediate impact on new U.S.-led Middle East peacemaking. With Sharon now leading a right-wing government, Mitzna's star, as well as his center-left party's fortunes, have faded sharply.
But his replacement could steer the party more firmly toward the political center, opening the possibility of joining forces with Sharon -- a move Mitzna opposed.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat voiced surprise at Mitzna's resignation.
"What is behind this? Does this mean the Labor Party is going back to the government?" Arafat asked on Dubai-based Al Arabiya television in an interview. "We hope that whoever replaces him in the leadership will proceed on the same path."
Commenting on the "road map," Arafat said the Palestinians accepted the document, which calls for an end to violence, a clampdown on militants and a Palestinian state by 2005. But he said the Palestinians had "some observations" for mediators.
Israel and the United States refuse to deal with Arafat, whom they accuse of fomenting violence, an allegation he denies.
Israel says the peace plan does not put sufficient onus on Palestinians to disarm and jail militants before Israel pulls troops out of Palestinian cities or suspends settlement on occupied territory.
In bloodshed on Sunday, Israeli forces shot dead a 14-year-old Palestinian during stone-throwing clashes near the city of Nablus in the West Bank, witnesses said.
© Reuters Limited 2003